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As job requirements changed, he was determined not to leave any employees behind. For seven years, an in-house teacher offered English and math classes on company time. Now, Hampden reimburses for academic courses that employees opt to take on their own.

Making his way through the plant's ground floor, Fowler talks over the rhythmic whir of a giant laminator about how he wanted to require an associate's degree for the people who operate it. The union blocked that move, but some of the operators have earned their degrees anyway. On a nearby machine, two employees pace back and forth, scrutinizing rolls of gold paper and periodically reaching a finger up to an attached touch-screen computer.

Fowler looks beyond his own company, too. He participates in local workforce-development initiatives and advocates for everything from education reform to more government funding for training. He worries about all the people still being left behind. One day a young Latino came in and asked the receptionist if he could take an application home. She asked him to fill it out in an adjacent room, because the company uses the form as a literacy screen. When he came out, two hours later, he left it with her and scurried out. He had written only his name. Fowler heard the story when he happened by the receptionist's desk and noticed she had been crying.

A management-skills deficiency

Such skills gaps are showing up nationwide - and at all levels of hiring and employment. About 60 percent of employers test job applicants in some form, and 38 percent are deficient in basic reading and math, according to the American Management Association. At the management level, the AMA also reports shortcomings in conceptual skills, communication, and problem solving.

That's of particular concern, because by 2013, the EPF report says, nearly 40 percent of US jobs will be professional or managerial.

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