Greg Bell

Recently, the Governor’s Economic Council heard a report entitled “Difficult-to-Fill Jobs Study Brief Report” prepared by the Economic Research and Analysis Unit of the Department of Workforce Services. The report tried to identify those hard-to-fill positions in our economy and the reasons they are hard to fill.

It is common knowledge that there aren’t enough software engineers and coders to fill the demands of Utah’s rising tech industry. Indeed, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) sector has many job vacancies. Employers report many applicants don’t have the necessary computer, technical or quantitative skills to qualify for these jobs.

However, one additional factor stood out in this study and in every jobs study we’ve seen in the last few years. Fifty percent of employers in non-STEM jobs report that applicants and new hires don’t have the necessary “soft skills” for their jobs. Soft skills are things like the ability to interact with customers pleasantly and professionally; get along and collaborate with colleagues; write clearly and correctly; ethics and honesty; and leaving personal matters aside during work time.

We’re seeing many in the rising generation who didn’t learn the value of communication and human interaction. Cell phones, streaming movies, video games and other digital diversions have so diverted some of these young people that they live in a virtual world detached from much of human interaction and are therefore ill-equipped to deal with real people.

Interpersonal skills are at the top of the soft skills list. But two more run closely behind: judgment and problem-solving. Good judgment is irreplaceable – the sense of what is wise, what is practical, what is ethical – can hardly be taught in a class. Many young people have been shielded from the need to solve problems. Their parents have solved them for their children, or the children have simply avoided dealing with their problems. These values need to be inculcated in children in their homes and other places over the long term.

By contrast, if I ever had the chance to hire a kid who grew up on a farm, other things being equal, I hired her. On the farm, she learned to work and to work alone, with animals and equipment, in bad weather and difficult conditions. She learned to solve problems through independent thinking and initiative. Her family depended on her to bring the cows home or bale the hay or pick the melons. There were no excuses and no short cuts. Work had to be done, and it had to be done at the right time.

Chores and work seem to be disappearing among today’s youth. To some degree, lessons and sports can replace chores in teaching self-application and self-discipline, but there is no short cut for learning how to work.

I hope parents will not over-protect children and shield them from work, from the consequences of their words and actions, from the need to get a little “bruised” on the playground, and from problems in general. They’re essentially doing an internship at home to prepare them for the real world of work.

Soft skills are what propel some ahead in the world and leave many more behind. It’s a sort of intelligence to have these abilities. Much of it can be learned. Let’s do all we can to help this rising generation with the ability to communicate, work with others, work hard, exercise good judgment, and focus on something besides their phones.

Greg Bell is a former lieutenant governor of Utah and the current President/ CEO of the Utah Hospital Association.