By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
HIGHLAND — When employers in Highland look around today’s workplace, they see much the same thing as counterparts in other communities — employees lacking in some basics.
This month, the city ramps up a plan to tackle the issue head-on.
A series of weekly programming modules will be presented, aiming at building soft skills — the foundation of characteristics that employers see as essential for people to get and keep a job.
From problem solving to telephone etiquette to teamwork to critical thinking, many younger adults are showing themselves in need. What some past generations took for granted — how to act, how to dress, being on time or simply showing up for work — needs to be reinforced.
Soft skills sound pretty simplistic, right?
“Yes, they are,” said Lisa Peck, assistant city manager in Highland. “But they are what’s missing. You’d think it would be intuitive, but it’s not. It’s the thing that all the employers are complaining about. This is a national problem.”
The concern arose some months ago when Peck organized an employer roundtable to find out what local businesses needed in the workforce. Some of the town’s biggest businesses were represented — Basler Electric, Eaton, Highland Machine, Clean Uniform, the school district, the hospital, Walmart, the banks and many others.
“We surveyed them to see what the main issues with workforce were,” Peck said. “They were what most employers’ issues are, and it didn’t matter which sector they were in. It was the soft skills – and people who don’t know what’s expected of an employee now.”
One way to approach the issue was falling back on a program that Highland already had in place, a Leadership Academy conducted the past two years at Highland High School. The program grooms students to prepare for community leadership roles once they’ve emerged from school.
Modifying that program for younger adults seemed the logical approach, Peck said. Employers liked the idea.
“We incorporated their biggest concerns with workforce and developed a series of programming modules, with varying focuses,” she said.
The result is that every Tuesday night in August, participants will be able to attend two-hour professionally led sessions to be held at Louis Latzer Memorial Public Library.
Lisa Kenny, regional manager, of the Illinois Manufacturing Excellence Center, will participate, as will officials from Southern Illinois University, the Bank of Edwardsville and the Highland Chamber of Commerce.
Certificates will be offered to participants who complete the program. Local employers said they would view that as a positive when considering applicants, Peck said.
Certain themes will be repeated in each of the modules but the content will vary.
On the first evening, Kinney was to focus on strengths, teamwork and talents and give students a “personality test.” Also targeted on opening night were communication skills and goal setting.
On the second week, Aug. 8, conversation will focus on professionalism/ethics, background checks, social media, drug testing, dealing with gossip. That same evening another module will highlight what to put on resume, job duties vs. accomplishments; listing strengths in lieu of experience.
Participants will build or revise a resume that will be brought back to the next module, on Aug. 15.
That night, visitors will experience interviewing preparation, including how to dress for an interview, researching an employer and more. Participants will be shown how to set up an account with LinkedIn, a business professionals’ social media network.
The evening of Aug. 22 will be devoted to mock interviews — two interviews with two employers. Participants will then go through a self-assessment of how they did.
The last module, on Aug. 29 will focus on a financial management program conducted by the Bank of Edwardsville, which offers a similar program to area high school classes. Among topics are setting long-term and short-term financial goals, personal finances, wants vs. needs, credit scores, wanting raises and proving value, and starting salary expectations vs. reality.
Problem solving/critical thinking will also be addressed on the last night.
Each of the sessions will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. The cost to attend any or all of the modules is $10 total, Peck said. Participants are volunteering their time.
“We’re trying to do something meaningful for our local employers because workforce is a huge issue,” she said.
She called the program “a local solution to a national problem. It’s a pilot program, we’ll try to be nimble. If there are things that need to be adjusted between sessions, we can do that.”
Many observers see the changing work ethic as a problem that goes along with the millennial generation, but Peck said it’s not so easy to qualify it.
Many of the skills are things that people used to learn from parents, who today have less time to spend.
Some of it is people becoming so engrossed in their phones that they simply have lost the art of interpersonal interaction.
“Any sector you go to, it’s a problem,” Peck said.
The adult version of the program is designed for those out of high school, but sponsors are waiting to see if they get a lot of college-age participants or an older generation looking to sharpen skills while seeking a new line of work.
Peck said she doesn’t know if other communities are trying this approach.
“We’d be happy to share our successes with other communities — and the things that we would change,” she said.
Peck said anyone is welcome to participate, but the stress is on those who are willing to help Highland employers.
Meanwhile, the Leadership Academy at Highland High School is opened up to any student who wishes to be a part. Home-schooled and private-education students will be included this year.
And, St. Paul’s Catholic School has asked that a modified version be adapted for its middle-school-age students.