Millennials Need Stronger Core Skills

The most educated generation is also the most disappointing as far as what managers need from their new employees, especially where their soft skills are concerned.

Young American workers today are more educated than ever before, but research continues to conclude that they continue to lag behind.

According to a new study by software company Instructure Inc., the majority of managers find millennials lacking core qualities most crucial for success at work. The study revealed that managers take attributes such as work ethic and attitude into the highest consideration when hiring millennials, but they still find entry-level employees lacking in these key areas. For example, 70 percent of managers say teamwork is important to success, but only 19 percent find entry-level employees very competent in teamwork.

I interviewed Jeff Weber, vice president of people and places at Instructure to discuss the study’s findings. Below are edited excerpts of our interview.

Let’s talk about millennials lacking core skills. What are those skills? Hard or soft skills?

Weber: Actually, the survey reports that mangers feel entry-level employees lack both hard and soft skills in certain areas, but that managers put a premium on soft skills like work ethic and creativity when assessing entry-level employees. The results of the study showed that there is a significant disparity between what managers say entry-level employees need to succeed, and the percentage of new hires that actually have those skills. Specifically, nearly all managers we surveyed reported taking attitude and work ethic into the highest consideration when hiring entry-level employees.

Jeff Weber, Instructure
Jeff Weber, Instructure

Drilling deeper into our data, we found significant disparities between the soft skills employers want and the attributes they observe in entry-level candidates. As one example, 88 percent of managers reported work ethic as a quality needed for success at work, but only 14.7 percent said entry-level employees had that skill when they started the job. Comparatively, 40 percent of managers said technical and trade skills are important for success at work, with only 15 percent saying that entry-level employees had those skills. So, young workers are lacking both soft and hard skills, but they won’t even get hired if they don’t exhibit core qualities like a positive attitude and teachability.

Can these skills be trained?

Weber: While some intangible skills are inherent, corporations can do a lot to train employees more efficiently, and we’re seeing a trend toward corporate education as the new normal. This is likely a reflection of the changing workplace, as trends like technological innovation and globalization create new complexities and create a new imperative around agility and adaptability of employees.

The study also revealed that most organizations are getting onboard with corporate training, but they haven’t mastered it yet. The study reported that 85 percent of managers feel their organization is effective at training new employees overall, but very few managers feel that their training is effective in improving vital attributes. For example, only 14 percent of managers reported that employees improved in critical thinking and problem solving after training, which explains why fundamental attributes are in such high demand. Most companies are hiring talent based on soft skills like attitude and hard work, with the hope that they can train them up in thinks like tech skills and industry knowledge.

What’s the solution to better prepare millennial employees? Change in higher education? Corporate learning?

Weber: Higher education is definitely important, and will only increase its relevance, because it’s where individuals nurture their capacities for critical thinking and ingenuity. But as the results of our study imply, managers are increasingly acknowledging that formal education must be supplemented by ongoing learning in the work setting to foster employee engagement, sharpen employee skills and keep the organization and individual employees on apace with rapid change.

Is this problem unique to this generation? Were other generations better prepared for work?

Weber: For the purposes of this study, we focused on new entrants to the workforce, who obviously skew younger and primarily comprise the millennial generation. Rather than focusing on which generation was or is better equipped to succeed at work, this study shines a light on the changing expectations in the workplace and suggests ways that all employees need to adapt accordingly.

Much has been made of the differing work styles of millennials and baby boomers, and often the assumption is that one generation or another has a leg up at work. We’ll reserve those conversations for another time and simply suggest that what managers are looking for in new entrants to the workforce is indicative of a changing definition of what it takes to be successful in a career setting.