‘How Do I Do That?’ The New Hires of 2023 Are Unprepared for Work | Kanebridge News
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‘How Do I Do That?’ The New Hires of 2023 Are Unprepared for Work

Remote learning during the pandemic left students short of basic skills. Now companies are trying to teach them on the job.

Thu, Aug 3, 2023 9:48amGrey Clock 7 min

Roman Devengenzo was consulting for a robotics company in Silicon Valley last fall when he asked a newly minted mechanical engineer to design a small aluminum part that could be fabricated on a lathe—a skill normally mastered in the first or second year of college.

“How do I do that?” asked the young man.

So Devengenzo, an engineer who has built technology for NASA and Google, and who charges consulting clients a minimum of $300 an hour, spent the next three hours teaching Lathework 101. “You learn by doing,” he said. “These kids in school during the pandemic, all they’ve done is work on computers.”

The knock-on effect of years of remote learning during the pandemic is gumming up workplaces around the country. It is one reason professional service jobs are going unfilled and goods aren’t making it to market. It also helps explain why national productivity has fallen for the past five quarters, the longest contraction since at least 1948, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

The shortcomings run the gamut from general knowledge, including how to make change at a register, to soft skills such as working with others. Employers are spending more time and resources searching for candidates and often lowering expectations when they hire. Then they are spending millions to fix new employees’ lack of basic skills.

Talent First, a business-led workforce-development organisation in Grand Rapids, Mich., is encouraging employers to stop trying to hire based on skill. Instead, hiring managers should look for a willingness to learn, said President Kevin Stotts.

“Employers are saying, ‘We’re just trying to find some people who could fog the mirror,’ ” Stotts said.

Since 2020, when the pandemic began and remote learning moved students out of schools and into virtual classrooms, the pass rates on national certifications and assessment exams taken by engineers, office workers, soldiers and nurses have all fallen.

Among the approximately 40,000 candidates taking the Fundamentals of Engineering exam for work as professional engineers, scores fell by about 10% during the pandemic, said David Cox, CEO of the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying.

That means fewer engineers on the job and a lower degree of competency among those who make it, he said.

The sharpest declines in scores came on questions measuring the most specialised knowledge. Structural engineers failed to answer questions about the use of trusses in the construction of bridges and roadways, Cox said.

“These are areas that are very much involved in public safety,” he said.

Students in elementary and middle schools across the nation fell behind by an average of about four months during the pandemic after classes switched to remote learning in 2020 and stayed that way in some cases through 2021. On national standardised tests, the scores of fourth- and eighth-graders fell to 30-year lows.

Students who were in high-school and college when Covid-19 hit and are now entering the workforce didn’t fare much better. Despite lowered standards at many schools during the pandemic, high-school graduation rates fell. Scores for college admissions exams dropped to the lowest level in three decades.

Janet Godwin, chief executive of ACT, the nonprofit organisation which administers the college admission test of the same name, said more high-school graduates today lack the fundamental academic skills needed for college and the workplace, with low-performing students facing the steepest declines.

In Covid-19’s aftermath, many college professors restructured curricula for students who lack basic study skills.

“Reading, writing and critical-thinking skills are not the same as they were in the past,” said Mike Altman, a religion professor at the University of Alabama who said he has narrowed his curriculum to give his students more time to master basics.

During the pandemic more than 100,000 nurses left the field, the largest decline in four decades of available data, a study in the journal Health Affairs showed. That has placed tremendous strain on hospitals and increased demands on programs to graduate more nurses. But students taking entrance exams to study nursing are scoring an average of about 5 percentage points lower than before the pandemic, limiting the number of students eligible to enrol in nursing programs.

More students who do enrol struggle to earn passing grades, said Patty Knecht, Vice President of Ascend Learning Healthcare, a private company which helps train medical professionals. And even if they do graduate, more are struggling to pass a certification exam. By then, they may already be on the payroll but unable to work. The delays cost hospitals an average of $42,000 per student who fails the certification exam, said Knecht.

Last year, Ivy Tech Community College, the largest nursing program in Indiana, embedded tutors in classrooms to assist lagging students with skills they should have mastered in high school. Some of the most basic included the math necessary to figure out correct dosages for medicine.

Joseph Mulumba, who is about to start his sophomore year in the Ivy Tech nursing program, was a high-school sophomore in Indiana when the pandemic arrived. His school was remote for a year.

“I feel like I would have learned a lot more if not for the pandemic,” Mulumba said. “When I got here I realised I wasn’t ready for nursing school. I realised I didn’t know how to study.”

Jerrica Moses, national recruitment manager for Senture, a London, Ky.-based call-centre company, says new workers have problems with soft skills, such as an inability to deal with frustration. Senture, which employs about 4,200 customer-service representatives, has adopted a new set of tests to determine which prospective employees will be able to keep their cool under stress from angry or rude callers.

“Candidates who wash out respond by explaining how aggravated they get with the callers and then focus on the stress,” said Moses. Most of the people who struggle are under 25 years old, she added.

Ivan Schury, 17, helps cook on the line at the John Ball Zoo’s Monkey Island Cafe. PHOTO: STEVE KOSS FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

In Grand Rapids, managers at the John Ball Zoo are coaching seasonal workers in their teens and early 20s on basics such as why it’s important to look visitors in the eye, and how to make change at a cash register.

They are also trying to instil a work ethic in their employees that includes taking some initiative, getting off their phones and engaging with visitors, said Laura Davis, the director of strategy and organisational development at the zoo. Her young employees haven’t been held accountable for things like finishing homework assignments, and Davis believes that has led to a decline in motivation.

“They’re not looking to be productive,” Davis said. “If they’re not told what to do, if someone isn’t managing every second and keeping them busy, their inclination is not to self identify what they can do—it’s to do nothing.”

The pandemic arrived when Ivan Schury was in the eighth grade. Now 17 years old and a supervisor in the zoo’s kitchen, he said the isolation he and his peers experienced over the next few years have left many distracted and disengaged.

Last week a teenager working the fry station kept wandering off. “He just kept walking away to talk to his friends at the counter,” Schury said. “I spend a lot of time making sure people stay on task.”

Charity Fields, age 19, stands inside the gift shop of the John Ball Zoo. PHOTO: STEVE KOSS FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Charity Fields, 19 years old, works in the gift shop and says she is frequently surprised by the lack of motivation of her younger co-workers. A few days ago a 16-year-old fellow sales associate sat in a chair reading a book while customers shopped.

“I told her we weren’t really supposed to do that,” Fields said. The girl got up, stood near the cash register, leaned on the counter and continued to read.

The problem extends to the U.S. military, exacerbating pressures the services face from poor recruiting.

Army recruits aren’t communicating within their squads as well as they did before the pandemic, instructors say. Scores on recruiting exams fell 9% since the pandemic and prompted the Army to create a new testing boot camp to help recruits pass, a requirement for gaining admission to the military.

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth believes a lot of the struggles are tied into isolation that took root when students learned remotely during the pandemic.

“So many young people spent two years in relative isolation and not doing a lot of group projects,” she said.

Young workers’ struggles have become vividly apparent to Criteria Corp, a Los Angeles company that administers about 10 million assessments a year to evaluate prospective employees.

New soldiers at Ft. Moore in Georgia are drilled in test-taking skills, including deep-breathing exercises, so they can perform better on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB. PHOTO: DAVID WALTER BANKS FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Results for test takers overall have held steady with a notable decline in the scores of men between 18 and 24 and usually with a high-school education, said Josh Millet, co-founder and CEO of the company.

The company’s Criteria Basic Skills Test measures reading comprehension, verbal skills and numeracy. Companies use it to hire for positions such as administrative assistants, customer-service representatives, medical assistants, insurance salespeople and bank tellers.

Verbal scores for men under 25 declined by 11 percentage points over the three years of the pandemic. Scores for women were less dramatically affected. The biggest dips among men were registered in communication skills, reading comprehension, grammar, spelling and attention to detail, said Millet.

“Our customers consistently tell us that finding high-quality candidates is the single greatest challenge to the successful execution of their talent strategies, and it seems that diminished educational outcomes may exacerbate that challenge,” Millet said.

Cindy Neal, owner of Express Employment Professionals in Peoria, Ill., places about 1,500 people in jobs every year. Since the pandemic, she has seen sharp declines in the behaviour of job applicants as well as their performance on employment exams.

The company has long offered courses for people to gain new skills such as QuickBooks. This spring they added new courses to help prospective workers with soft skills. Some of the chapters taught include taking initiative, personal productivity, cellphone etiquette, workplace hygiene, dressing appropriately for work and handling conflict with co-workers.

“This stuff used to be taught in schools,” Neal said. “Now people have to be told not to bring their kids to work.”

Results on the 15-minute employment exam the company administers to clients when they walk in the door are also declining.

Tasks on the quiz include recognising misspellings in words like “availability,” “repetition” and “privilege,” and math questions such as: “If you were asked to load 225 boxes onto a truck and the boxes are crated, with each crate containing nine boxes, how many crates would you need to load?”

The scores in math and spelling are the worst she’s seen in 30 years, she said, adding, “I’m really concerned by the product that’s coming out of the school system currently.”


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At the World Plogging Championship, contestants have lugged in tires, TVs and at least one Neapolitan coffee maker

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GENOA, Italy—Renato Zanelli crossed the finish line with a rusty iron hanging from his neck while pulling 140 pounds of trash on an improvised sled fashioned from a slab of plastic waste.

Zanelli, a retired IT specialist, flashed a tired smile, but he suspected his garbage haul wouldn’t be enough to defend his title as world champion of plogging—a sport that combines running with trash collecting.

A rival had just finished the race with a chair around his neck and dragging three tires, a television and four sacks of trash. Another crossed the line with muscles bulging, towing a large refrigerator. But the strongest challenger was Manuel Jesus Ortega Garcia, a Spanish plumber who arrived at the finish pulling a fridge, a dishwasher, a propane gas tank, a fire extinguisher and a host of other odds and ends.

“The competition is intense this year,” said Zanelli. Now 71, he used his fitness and knack for finding trash to compete against athletes half his age. “I’m here to help the environment, but I also want to win.”

Italy, a land of beauty, is also a land of uncollected trash. The country struggles with chronic littering, inefficient garbage collection in many cities, and illegal dumping in the countryside of everything from washing machines to construction waste. Rome has become an emblem of Italy’s inability to fix its trash problem.

So it was fitting that at the recent World Plogging Championship more than 70 athletes from 16 countries tested their talents in this northern Italian city. During the six hours of the race, contestants collect points by racking up miles and vertical distance, and by carrying as much trash across the finish line as they can. Trash gets scored based on its weight and environmental impact. Batteries and electronic equipment earn the most points.

A mobile app ensures runners stay within the race’s permitted area, approximately 12 square miles. Athletes have to pass through checkpoints in the rugged, hilly park. They are issued gloves and four plastic bags to fill with garbage, and are also allowed to carry up to three bulky finds, such as tires or TVs.

Genoa, a gritty industrial port city in the country’s mountainous northwest, has a trash problem that gets worse the further one gets away from its relatively clean historic core. The park that hosted the plogging championship has long been plagued by garbage big and small.

“It’s ironic to have the World Plogging Championship in a country that’s not always as clean as it could be. But maybe it will help bring awareness and things will improve,” said Francesco Carcioffo, chief executive of Acea Pinerolese Industriale, an energy and recycling company that’s been involved in sponsoring and organizing the race since its first edition in 2021. All three world championships so far have been held in Italy.

Events that combine running and trash-collecting go back to at least 2010. The sport gained traction about seven years ago when a Swede, Erik Ahlström, coined the name plogging, a mashup of plocka upp, Swedish for “pick up,” and jogging.

“If you don’t have a catchy name you might as well not exist,” said Roberto Cavallo, an Italian environmental consultant and longtime plogger, who is on the world championship organizing committee together with Ahlström.

Saturday’s event brought together a mix of wiry trail runners and environmental activists, some of whom looked less like elite athletes.

“We like plogging because it makes us feel a little less guilty about the way things are going with the environment,” said Elena Canuto, 29, as she warmed up before the start. She came in first in the women’s ranking two years ago. “This year I’m taking it a bit easier because I’m three months pregnant.”

Around two-thirds of the contestants were Italians. The rest came from other European countries, as well as Japan, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Algeria, Ghana and Senegal.

“I hope to win so people in Senegal get enthusiastic about plogging,” said Issa Ba, a 30-year-old Senegalese-born factory worker who has lived in Italy for eight years.

“Three, two, one, go,” Cavallo shouted over a loudspeaker, and the athletes sprinted off in different directions. Some stopped 20 yards from the starting line to collect their first trash. Others took off to be the first to exploit richer pickings on wooded hilltops, where batteries and home appliances lay waiting.

As the hours went by, the athletes crisscrossed trails and roads, their bags became heavier. They tagged their bulky items and left them at roadsides for later collection. Contestants gathered at refreshment points, discussing what they had found as they fueled up on cookies and juice. Some contestants had brought their own reusable cups.

With 30 minutes left in the race, athletes were gathering so much trash that the organisers decided to tweak the rules: in addition to their four plastic bags, contestants could carry six bulky objects over the finish line rather than three.

“I know it’s like changing the rules halfway through a game of Monopoly, but I know I can rely on your comprehension,” Cavallo announced over the PA as the athletes braced for their final push to the finish line.

The rule change meant some contestants could almost double the weight of their trash, but others smelled a rat.

“That’s fantastic that people found so much stuff, but it’s not really fair to change the rules at the last minute,” said Paul Waye, a Dutch plogging evangelist who had passed up on some bulky trash because of the three-item rule.

Senegal will have to wait at least a year to have a plogging champion. Two hours after the end of Saturday’s race, Ba still hadn’t arrived at the finish line.

“My phone ran out of battery and I got lost,” Ba said later at the awards ceremony. “I’ll be back next year, but with a better phone.”

The race went better for Canuto. She used an abandoned shopping cart to wheel in her loot. It included a baby stroller, which the mother-to-be took as a good omen. Her total haul weighed a relatively modest 100 pounds, but was heavy on electronic equipment, which was enough for her to score her second triumph.

“I don’t know if I’ll be back next year to defend my title. The baby will be six or seven months old,” she said.

In the men’s ranking, Ortega, the Spanish plumber, brought in 310 pounds of waste, racked up more than 16 miles and climbed 7,300 feet to run away with the title.

Zanelli, the defending champion, didn’t make it onto the podium. He said he would take solace from the nearly new Neapolitan coffee maker he found during the first championship two years ago. “I’ll always have my victory and the coffee maker, which I polished and now display in my home,” he said.

Contestants collected more than 6,600 pounds of trash. The haul included fridges, bikes, dozens of tires, baby seats, mattresses, lead pipes, stoves, chairs, TVs, 1980s-era boomboxes with cassettes still inside, motorcycle helmets, electric fans, traffic cones, air rifles, a toilet and a soccer goal.

“This park hasn’t been this clean since the 15 century,” said Genoa’s ambassador for sport, Roberto Giordano.


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