An Important Lesson in Teamwork

They call them ‘soft’ skills.

That’s the term applied to most non-technical skills associated with employment situations. These include communications, teamwork-building capabilities, listening, even dress and punctuality.

These are often overlooked at a time when employers are struggling to find people who have the requisite technical skills to run today’s high-tech manufacturing equipment or read an X-ray. But those soft skills are critical in every job and for every business, and like those aforementioned hard skills they are often missing from the equation among those seeking employment in the Pioneer Valley.

Which is why we’re encouraged by programs like that created by Junior Achievement of Western Mass. Inc. for area high school students, but also the companies that may employ them someday. Called the Workforce Readiness & Career Preparation Project, the initiative (see story, page 35) has a number of different components. Together, they address concerns and issues ranging from awareness of career opportunities at area businesses to the importance of education in seizing those opportunities, to those aforementioned soft skills.

The program, now in its second year and involving more than 1,300 students at two Springfield high schools, is a good example of how the business community can work together with groups like JA to help improve the quality and quantity of this region’s workforce — and must do so if this all-important economic development issue is to be addressed.

As we’ve said before, workforce development is a broad, complex, often-frustrating issue that, to be properly addressed, requires some vision and patience — in equal doses. That’s because the answers, and the solutions, don’t some quickly or easily. In some cases, steps taken today may not yield results for five, 10, or even 20 years down the road. But they still have to be taken.

Which brings us to the JA workforce-readiness program, which continues a tradition that the organizations started nearly 90 years ago to “teach kids how business works.” In years past, this assignment traditionally involved going into a high school and setting up a company making night lights or some other product.

This exercise would provide lessons in everything from budgeting to marketing; management to sales. JA still conducts such programs within the area, but recently, it was informed that it had more work to do.

Indeed, after querying area business owners about the problems and issues confronting them — and about how JA might address them — administrators in the Springfield office heard that young (and some not-so-young) people lacked many of those soft skills, some as apparently simple as showing up for work on time.

Discussions with business owners revealed that these matters were in no way simple, and that some requisite skills and attitudes needed to succeed in business and in life — matters once taken for granted — were now getting lost; the lessons were not being imparted in the home or classroom.

Using funds amassed through a challenge grant from MassMutual, the JA program is addressing these issues through in-class presentations, board games, and a job-shadowing program that gets young people out of the classroom and into the workplace. Through these initiatives, students learn about everything from credit and how to manage it to what an underwriter does and why one has to stay in school to become one.

It’s far too early gauge just how successful the JA program will be in addressing the concerns of area business owners. But this much we know already: workforce development is all-encompassing matter for this region, and that the process of improving quality and quantity will require that the business community and groups like JA practice teamwork — and not simply try to teach it.

This Workforce Readiness & Career Preparation Project provides some momentum to build upon.-

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