Survey: Region at risk due to critical skills gap


March 28, 2004

By MATTHEW LANE

KINGSPORT - Employers in the Tri-Cities region say there is an urgent and widespread need for people with a strong work ethic who have good problem-solving, leadership and critical-thinking skills, according to an East Tennessee State University study.

Dr. Karen Tarnoff, assistant professor of management at ETSU, conducted the study, titled "The Skills Gap in our Region."

The 18-month study surveyed 118 businesses that employ 40,795 workers in Carter, Greene, Johnson, Washington, Sullivan and Unicoi counties.

The survey looked at three areas of employer need: technical skills, worker competencies (active listening, conflict resolution and teamwork) and worker characteristics (dependability, work ethic and commitment).

Tarnoff said the study shows that the Tri-Cities region has significant gaps in each of those areas.

"I had expected to find that the technical skills gap would be the greatest, but what the data actually bears out is that the worker characteristics gap is the greatest. It's the most urgent and widespread," Tarnoff said.

"What it showed us was that in order for us to have people who are employable, we've got to have people with the right personal characteristics - work ethic, dependability, commitment, loyalty.

"That was what the employers were screaming at us when we surveyed them."

According to the study, 35 percent of businesses surveyed say there is an urgent need for reading/math and communication skills among their employees. About 40 percent of the businesses said there is an urgent need for those skills among applicants.

Roughly 40 percent of businesses surveyed said there is an urgent need for employees and applicants to have good problem-solving, teamwork, leadership and critical-thinking skills.

Dependability and commitment were attributes ranked highest among surveyed businesses with nearly half saying there is an urgent need for dependable applicants.

Roughly 40 percent of businesses said there is an urgent need for employees and applicants to have a good work ethic.

Tarnoff said the worker characteristics gap is not only the most urgent, but the most critical for the success of this region.

"That's going to have to be a cooperative effort between families, community organizations like churches and employers and educators to try to build good people," Tarnoff said.

"What I tell my class is, I would rather have a very motivated, conscientious person who lacks concrete skills because I can teach it to them, than have the brightest person on the planet who is unmotivated."

That gap is also going to be hardest for the Tri-Cities to overcome, Tarnoff said.

"If we don't, we're not going to have any luck recruiting into this region. We're not even being successful retaining what we have," Tarnoff said.

"It's much easier to come into a classroom and teach people how to troubleshoot a computer than it is to find the right mechanism to teach them that they have to be at work on time, or that they have to be loyal to the company or have a strong work ethic to do things before they're asked to do them."

Dr. Jon Smith, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at ETSU, said the fundamental attributes, such as showing up for work on time and having a low absentee rate, are what most people take for granted.

"Every time you look at the factors that firms are seeking in their location decision, a highly skilled work force is one of them. Being highly motivated is another one," Smith said.

"The problem we've seen, which is endemic to a lot of the United States, is that many of the employers commented that these basic attributes seem to be lacking in some of their applicants.

"There's a problem with getting kids to show up and be motivated."

Dr. Jim Hite, retired professor of economic development for 33 years at Clemson University, said businesses' concern for a better work ethic among their employees and applicants is what's most troubling to him.

"I knew we had a skills gap problem, but I think the thing that hit me was that it brings home this work ethic issue which is something that we have claimed is one of our strengths," Hite said. "I've been hearing stories from employers that the problem was there."

According to the study, 52 percent of businesses surveyed said there is a skills gap among their employees while 63 percent said there is a skills gap with their applicants.

Only 32 percent of businesses said the skills gap among their employees is urgent, 33 percent said the skills gap would worsen, while 35 percent were unsure as to whether their organization recognized the worsening of the gap.

"Failure to recognize this may hamstring companies in their competitive ventures," Tarnoff wrote in the study.

As for the cause of the skills gap, businesses gave a variety of reasons.

While 56 percent of businesses said the changing nature of jobs made skills obsolete, the next three most-cited reasons for the skills gap were blamed on the employee.

However, among applicants, roughly 60 percent of the businesses said the failure of education and the family was the cause of the skills gap. "But they're not pointing the finger at themselves in either case," Tarnoff said.

Smith said historically, manufacturing was the economic development engine for the country in the 1940s and 1950s, but now things are changing and there is a shift in the basic structure in the economy.

"There are a lot more service jobs than there were before and that requires a different skill set," Smith said. "But we are certainly no different than any of the other small communities in our country. The way to fix it is to concentrate on our weaknesses and try to exploit our strengths."

Hite said he believes the skills gap was caused from the generational change in the United States. "We had a whole generation of people who grew up in the Depression and postwar period who were really happy to have jobs," Hite said.

"Now they've moved into senior citizen status." When asked about solutions for the skills gap, businesses offered a wide variety of solutions, Tarnoff wrote in the study.

The most common reply from businesses, 41 percent, was that families needed to prepare their children for the work force; 39 percent believed the solution for the skills gap lies in improving the secondary education system, while 38 percent of businesses said applicants must develop the personal characteristics required for success.

Hite said he believes the problem with the skills gap in our region is going to take some time to correct.

"We had a work force that grew up to meet the needs of places like Eastman, and now that they aren't the dominate employer any more, it's going to take a while for people to begin to understand that it takes a whole different set of skills," Hite said. "There are no fast fixes to this, and it's going to take a while."

Tarnoff said the skills gap problem was not created by a single factor.

"And it's not going to be solved by a unitary solution," she said. "It's going to take education, funding, and some real leadership in the community to craft the right solution."

Copyright 2003 Kingsport Times-News.