‘How Do I Do That?’ The New Hires of 2023 Are Unprepared for Work
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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.”


Consumers are going to gravitate toward applications powered by the buzzy new technology, analyst Michael Wolf predicts

Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

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Booming demand for wellness tourism shows no slowing, with travel related to health and well-being projected to have reached $1 trillion last year and to hit $1.3 trillion by 2025, according to the Global Wellness Institute, a nonprofit based in Miami.

Curated wellness travel programs are especially sought-after, specifically holistic treatments focused on longevity. Affluent travellers not only are making time to hit the gym while gallivanting across the globe, they’re also seeking destinations that specifically cater to their wellness goals, including treatments aimed at living longer.

“I believe Covid did put a spotlight on self-care and well-being,” says Penny Kriel, corporate director of spa and wellness at Salamander Collection, a group of luxury properties in places like Washington, D.C., and Charleston, South Carolina. But Kriel says today’s spas are more holistic, encouraging folks to understand the wellness concept and incorporate it into their lifestyle more frequently.

“With the evolution of treatment products and technology, spas have been able to enhance their offerings and appeal to more travellers,” Kriel says.

While some growth is connected to the variety of treatments available, results and the digital world are also contributing to the wellness boom.

“The efficacy and benefits of these treatments continue to drive bookings and interest, especially with the support of social media, influencers, and celebrity endorsements,” Kriel says.

While genetics, environmental factors, and lifestyle choices such as regular exercise, a diet free of processed foods, sufficient sleep, and human connection play essential roles in living well and longer, experts believe in holistic therapies to help manage stress, boost immunity, and ultimately influence length and quality of life.

Anti Ageing and Beyond

“For years, people have been coming to spas, booking treatments, and gaining advice on how to turn the clock back with anti ageing and corrective skin treatments,” Kriel says. However, today’s treatments are far more innovative.

On Marinella Beach in Porto Rotondo, on the Italian island of Sardinia, guests at the five-star Abi d’Oru Hotel & Spa can experience the resort’s one-of-a-kind “longevity treatment,” a unique antiaging facial using one of the island’s native grapes: Cannonau. The world’s first declared “Blue Zone”—one of five designated areas where people live longer than average, some into their 100s—Sardinia produces this robust red wine varietal, the most widely planted on the island.

Known as Garnacha in Spain and Grenache in France, Cannonau supposedly contains two to three times more antioxidants than other red-wine grapes. By incorporating Cannonau, Abi Spa says its unique 50-minute longevity session increases collagen production for firmer, younger-looking skin.

Maintaining a youthful appearance is just one facet of longevity treatments, which range from stress-reduction sessions like massage to nutritional support and sleep programs, Kriel says. Some retreats also offer medical services such as IV infusions and joint injections.

Keeping with the trend, Kriel is expanding Salamander Collection’s existing spa services, such as detox wraps and lymphatic drainage, to include dedicated “Wellness Rooms,” new vegan and vegetarian menu items, and well-being workshops. “Sleep, nutrition, and mindfulness will be a big focus for integration in 2024,” she says.

Data-Driven Wellness

Skyler Stillings, an exercise physiologist at Sensei Lanai, a Four Seasons Resort—an adults-only wellness centre in Lanai, Hawaii—says guests were drawn to the social aspect when the spa opened in November 2021.

“We saw a huge need for human connection,” she recalls. But over the past few years, what’s paramount has shifted. “Longevity is trending much more right now.”

Human connection is a central draw for guests at Sensei Lanai, an adults-only and wellness-focused Four Seasons Resort in Hawaii.
Sensei Lanai, A Four Seasons Resort

Billionaire co-founder of tech company Oracle Larry Ellison and physician and scientist Dr. David Angus co-founded Sensei. After the death of a mutual close friend, the duo teamed up to create longevity-based wellness retreats to nurture preventative care and a healthy lifestyle. In addition to the Lanai location, the brand established Sensei Porcupine Creek in Greater Palm Springs, California, in November 2022.

Sensei has a data-driven approach. The team performs a series of assessments to obtain a clearer picture of a guest’s health, making wellness recommendations based on the findings. While Sensei analyses that data to curate a personalised plan, Stillings says it’s up to the guests which path they choose.

Sensei’s core three-day retreat is a “Guided Wellness Experience.” For spa treatments, each guest checks into their own “Spa Hale,” a private 1,000-square-foot bungalow furnished with an infrared sauna, a steam shower, a soaking tub, and plunge pools. The latest therapies include Sarga Bodywalking—a barefoot myofascial release massage, and “Four Hands in Harmony,” a massage with two therapists working in tandem. Sensei Guides provide take-home plans so guests can continue their wellness journeys after the spa.

Sensei Lanai, an adults-only and wellness-focused Four Seasons Resort in Hawaii.
Sensei Lanai, A Four Seasons Resort

Sanctuaries for Longevity

Headquartered in Switzerland with hotels and on-site spas across the globe, Aman Resorts features an integrative approach, combining traditional remedies with modern medicine’s advanced technologies. Tucked behind the doors of the storied Crown Building in Midtown Manhattan, Banya Spa House at Aman New York—the brand’s flagship spa in the Western Hemisphere—is a 25,000-square-foot, three-floor urban oasis.

Yuki Kiyono, global head of health and wellness development at Aman, says the centre provides access to holistic and cutting-edge treatments benefiting physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social well-being. Aman’s customisable “Immersion Programs” consist of a three- or five-day immersion. “The programs encompass treatments and experiences that touch every significant aspect to create a path for longevity, from meditation and mindfulness to nutrition and movement,” Kiyono explains.

Banya Spa House at Aman New York.
Robert Rieger

The spa’s “Tei-An Wellness Solution” features 90- to 150-minute sessions using massage, cryotherapy, and Vitamin IV infusions. Acupuncture is also on offer.

“With its rich history of Chinese Medicine, modern research, and the introduction of sophisticated electro-acupuncture medicine, acupuncture has been proven to assist with problems and increase performance,” Kiyono says.

Resetting the Mind and Body

Beyond longevity, “healthspan”—the number of years a person can live in good health free of chronic disease—is the cornerstone of Mountain Trek Health Reset Retreat’s program in British Columbia, Canada.

Kirk Shave, president and program director, and his team employ a holistic approach, using lifestyles in long-living Blue Zones as a point of reference.

“We improve our daily lifestyle habits, so we live vitally as long as we’re meant to live,” Shave says of the retreat. He built the program from an anthropological stance, referencing humans as farmers, hunters, and gatherers based on their eating and sleeping patterns. Food includes vegetable-centric meals sans alcohol, sugar, bread, or dairy.

Guests wake at dawn each day and have access to sunrise yoga, several hours of “flow” or slow hiking, spa treatments, forest bathing, calming crystal singing-bowl and sound therapy sessions, and classes on stress reduction—one of Mountain Trek’s primary goals. The program motivates people to spend much of their time in nature because it’s been proven to reduce cortisol, the stress hormone that can lead to inflammation and disease when elevated for extended periods.

While most guests aren’t aware of how immersive Mountain Trek’s program is when they arrive, they leave the resort revitalized after the structured, one-week program. Set in the Kootenays overlooking its eponymous river, the resort and adventure promise what Shave calls a “visceral experience of transformation.”

“They’re interested in coming to be in nature,” Shave says of the guests. “They hit a wall in their life and slipped backwards, so they know they need a reset.”

Banya Spa House at Aman New York provides access to holistic and cutting-edge treatments benefiting physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social well-being.
Robert Rieger

This article first appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of Mansion Global Experience Luxury.


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Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

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