HICKORY – Sometimes being successful in life comes down to simply showing up.

There’s more to it than this obviously, but it’s where employers expect their employees to start when they are hired — along with having a positive attitude.

A hundred years ago, the leaders of industry in the United States stumbled onto these ideas when they were asking themselves what could they do to develop even more productive and more involved employees at their companies.

An extensive study of engineering education by Charles Mann for the Carnegie Foundation came up with the idea of investing in more time to teach something called soft skills.

The study was prepared for the Joint Committee on Engineering Education of the National Engineering Societies in 1918.

“These interviews, together with a study of the methods of rating college graduates in several large manufacturing companies, indicated that personal qualities such as common sense, integrity, resourcefulness, initiative, tact, thoroughness, accuracy, efficiency and understanding of men are universally recognized as being no less necessary to a professional engineer than are technical knowledge and skill,” the study said.

Still relevant

Luke Walling, president of Temprano Techvestors, a business-to-business software products company based in Newton, said any applicant they consider for a job needs to have good communication skills to start.

“Much of our work involves demonstrating, implementing, supporting and selling complicated cyber security and general information technology tools,” Walling said in an HDR email. “It’s critical for our team members to be able to communicate the value of these products plainly and communicate their effectiveness in terms our customers can associate with.”

Accountability is another key attribute he looks for in an employee, especially since Temprano Techvestors is a small company.

“If a person in our team can’t accept being tied to real results, this isn’t the place for them. All too often we run across candidates that find this concept challenging, even in sales roles,” Walling said.

He’s been impressed with some of the programs, public and private, K-12 education has begun using, like Leader in Me, to develop these traits in potential employees.

“I believe we must learn from what these programs do locally, and build the basic elements into the very core of what our educators do,” Walling said.

He’s seen this done “in pockets” throughout the county already. One example he points to is Discovery High School in Newton.

“Students are empowered to learn in new and different ways more like that of a college environment, but held to rigorous standards of accountability in return for this freedom,” Walling said.

With Leader in Me, he’s seen children who can speak, present and start conversations in authoritative professional ways not expected from their age group. The problem has been the hefty cost to bring something like Leader in Me to a school.

Walling is hoping K-64 (kindergarten to age 64) can be a pathway to develop a more “home grown, sustainable” leadership training program for all the county’s school systems.

The objective of K-64 is to engage more students and employers in local educational programs that help shape future careers and meet workforce demands, according to k-64learning.com.

Its priorities include: one-to-world classroom technology, developing tech savvy educators, work-based learning, employer engagement, career adaptability and character education.

“Can we do it? I believe so. I’ve seen an unexpected amount of interest in the program and am optimistic today in its future,” Walling said.

Not so long ago

This was an issue Catawba County Economic Development Corporation President Scott Millar remembers Glenn Barger, a former Catawba County Schools superintendent and county commissioner, brought up for discussion in 2011.

Today, Millar sees programs like K-64 as an example of how different groups in the county are prioritizing the importance of soft skills training again.

“The employers can train people to do the work they need if they show up and if they’re on time,” Millar said. “The real issue behind the soft skills development is will people show up, will they be there with a great attitude, will they understand that they are part of a process.”

He sees it as a discussion about building stronger business and education partnerships.

Nathan Huret, Catawba County Economic Development Corporation Director of Existing Industry, agreed the underlying theme of soft skills and character development always seems to be part of any discussion on workforce development.

“At the end of the day, what I often hear from employers is they want someone who’s going to be dependable and have a willingness to learn,” Huret said.

He’s seen the idea evolve over time as well.

Huret said his wife is a teacher, so he has heard of character development in the schools for years, but showing how it applies to getting a job in the “real world” is different now.

Millar hopes this is now a movement and not an anomaly.

“I think this is an economic imperative. If we don’t effectively do this, we will not be able to satisfy the economic needs, the workforce needs we’ll have in the future,” Millar said.

The bottom line is being able to convince existing and potential employers the county has a workforce ready to do a job and is trainable.

“We’re not alone in this. If you go to every community in this country, you’ll see they’re having the same issues, some on a greater severity than others,” Huret said. “Our goal is to basically beat them in that struggle.”

Millar agreed programs like K-64, Leader in Me, Apprenticeship Catawba, give his office a very effective tool when they’re talking to potential new businesses for the county. Showing there is a system in place to address the need of soft skills training can be the difference between counties competing for the same business.

“What’s more expensive than an employee,” Millar said. “If you can make a difference in the cost of that employee and their productivity and their abilities, then you’re making a big difference to a company.”

About time

Like Waller, Bill McBrayer of Lexington Home Brands weighs soft skills as nearly as important as having the work skills needed for a job.

“I’ve heard stories a number of times of applicants who may have the technical skills to interview well and actually get the job but then three months later they’re terminated because the soft skill component of their resume was missing,” McBrayer said. “They couldn’t get to work on time. In manufacturing for instance, we start at six o’clock not 6:05, and there are consequences to pay if you’re not there at six o’clock.”

He said there are three things employers in any industry are looking for in potential employees: be at work on time every day, do the job you’re asked to do and get along with the people in your department.

“All that sounds elementary, but 90 percent of terminations in my work are caused by one of those three things that a person couldn’t do,” McBrayer said.

Because of this, he has seen the education piece to this issue become even more important in recent years. McBrayer is a member of the North Carolina State Board of Community Colleges.

The North Carolina Board of Community Colleges recently created the Employability Skills Alignment Project (ESAP) to address these needs. The first phase will run from Feb. 1 to June 30. The second phase will be July 1 to June 30, 2019.

This project is being considered because when interviewed during the NCWorks 1,000 in 100, employers cited the lack of employability skills as the second-highest reason they experienced difficulty filling jobs, according to the NC Community College’s proposal.

The results of the last five academic alignment projects indicated that employers emphasized the importance of soft skills, stressing the need for aligning the skills to meet state, national and global standards.

Catawba Valley Community College (CVCC) has addressed this on a local level as well with its revamped Work Based Learning class, now a requirement for all students enrolled in the college’s school of business, business and industry.

Gary Muller, CVCC Dean for the School of Business, Industry and Technology, said this new direction started with CVCC President Garrett Hinshaw.

“We have students coming out of here so strong from a technical standpoint like automotive, machining, welding, health care, graphic design,” Muller said. “They come out with great skills but they’re really struggling first to get an interview and then to do well in the interview.”

Even when they get the job, they may still have problems fitting into the company’s culture.

The original course covered some of the basics for new job seekers: making a resume, learning interviewing skills, but it needed more depth, Muller said. The other problem was it was just an elective.

This new course will be taught by Tammy Muller, who’s excited about some of the changes the college made and what it could mean for students.

“They may get a job, but they may not get the job that they have worked hard for because they may not get the opportunities to interview with these companies who would really value their technical skills because they’re lacking the soft skills to get those interviews,” Tammy Muller said.

The SkillsUSA program at CVCC is another example of ways the college tries to help sharpen soft skills for students. SkillsUSA is a national partnership of students, teachers and industry representatives working together to ensure America has a skilled workforce, according to skillsusa.org.

The state of North Carolina now requires all school districts to provide some type of character development training as well.

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