The Real Millennial Challenge: The Skills Gap

A recent study by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) (link to study) found that U.S. Millennials lag behind their global counterparts in a way that creates real on-the-job problems for them, their colleagues and teammates, and managers: They show a genuine lack of hard and soft skills.

According to the ETS Report, U.S. Millennials “…consistently score below many of their international peers in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments. Equally troubling is that these findings represent a decrease in literacy and numeracy skills when compared to results from previous years of U.S. adult surveys.”

In real terms, this means American Millennials struggle with:

  • Literacy, or the ability to use and understand written text. For all of the technology they deal with—and the volume of content they face—on a daily basis, this is one area that Millennials, and those tasked with teaching and/or training them, need to focus on improving.
  • Numeracy, or basic math skills. American Millennials ranked last globally, along with Italy and Spain.
  • Problem solving using digital technology. This is perhaps the biggest surprise for a generation regularly described as “digital natives.”

I am never a fan of generational stereotyping or generational bashing, so in spite of this research, let’s not be so quick as to lump an entire generation into one group. However, these issues could be a warning signal and something that we need to take note of, both from an educational standpoint pre-workforce, as well as a mentoring standpoint during employment.

It goes without saying that problem solving and communication skills are essential skills for the corporate workplace. These survey results DO make one thing clear—today’s business leaders should be aware of potential issues and think about how their organizations can create a workplace culture that identifies problems and puts systems and ongoing training in place that enable Millennials to improve their soft skills on the job.

Encourage Millennials to Build the Soft Skills They Lack

The ETS study is a warning, not a conviction. Most data shows that Millennials work hard when inspired and professional development and helpful feedback (and lots of it!) is important to them. The most short-sighted thing any company could do would be to discount Millennials when hiring, just because they are short a few soft skills. Instead, put a plan in place to help them—and you—tackle this problem head-on.

The first step is to just be aware that there might be a problem and to be out in front of it. Millennials might not be the only members of your team who need help when it comes to soft skills, so focus on creating a cooperative, supportive environment where mentoring is prevalent. That will make it easier to take the steps necessary to improve the skills of your whole workforce, and of course, any younger members of your team who might need it.

Where to Go From Here: Training and Mentorship

As mentioned, awareness of these potential issues is a great start. And when you can focus on great internal communication and building and fostering strong relationships, both with your Millennial workforce and throughout the organization, you’ll be on the right track. If training and mentorship, a positive attitude and strong work ethic are valued at your organization, your Millennial team members will key into that and rise to the challenge. Here are some suggestions:

  • Make it clear that your company values certain core skills and that it’s only natural that not everyone is an expert, but your goal is to provide the assistance and training to help master them.
  • Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk. Develop a training program and offer workshops and classes for personal development on a regular basis. Ask your employees for feedback on the sessions offered as well as suggestions for other topics that they would like to see covered.
  • Invite outside speakers in on a regular basis and make learning together a fun part of your corporate culture.
  • If public speaking or presenting is a component of certain team members’ jobs, make sure your internal training includes instruction on how to improve in these areas. You might also consider sending employees to training programs like Toastmasters or Dale Carnegie, or even explore the myriad of online training resources like those offered at Udemy. The more you can teach your team on the front lines to be great presenters, the better they will feel about their capabilities, and the more successful they will be.
  • Obviously integrity and professionalism, punctuality, and polite communication are important—verbally as well as in written communications like text or email. Highlight these things as standards within the organization, and be consistent and make sure everyone in the organizations endeavors to set a good example, including managers and employees of all ages.
  • Make learning a partnership. You can do this by making sure you have a structured mentorship program in place so that Millennials can work alongside older, more experienced team members and seek out guidance and grow as leaders.
  • Begin training from the beginning. If you want new hires to smoothly integrate into your work culture, create an on-boarding program that emphasizes soft skills and offer related training as part of your standard operating procedure.

Focus Today on Building the Leaders of Tomorrow

It is very clear that there’s work to do if we want to reclaim America’s dominance in education and training—and businesses need to help fill the gaps. And it’s only by doing so that we’ll empower the next generation of business leaders, which should be a national and organizational priority.

The good news is that Millennials are a highly educated group, well equipped with the hard skills needed to excel in their chosen industry. All many of them need is guidance and training to develop their soft skills and become more well-rounded. If your company recognizes this and steps in to help, the entire organization will be more competitive and able to capitalize on the Millennials’ many strengths. As an added bonus, it’s a pretty safe bet that the rest of your team will benefit from these things, too.

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