How a Generation Lost So Many Employability Skills



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I’m so sick of hearing employers complain about the lack of soft skills on the part of employees and job candidates that I could vomit. We know. You want employees who come to work every day, stay off drugs and can take direction. We know you want them to accept constructive criticism, take pride in their work and resolve routine work conflicts. We know. Everybody knows. You want soft skills. But why don’t employees have them? The answer might have its roots in a handful of child abductions 30 some years ago. Stay with me.

I am often amazed at the things my parents allowed me to do while growing up. My school was the equivalent of 12 city blocks from my house. To get there, I had to cross the street six times, one of the crossings was at the busiest street in our town. I was allowed to walk to school alone when I was five years old.

One of the largest swimming pools on the planet – the U.S. had gotten into the “world’s largest swimming pool size” war with Germany decades before and won with a pool built in my hometown – was about a half mile from my house. By the time I was seven, my friends and I were permitted to walk to the pool without our parents. Many long summer days were spent basking in the sun, cooling off in the water and goofing around. When we tired of swimming, we moved to the railroad tracks not far away, walked the rails as if they were a balance beam, collected nuggets of coal that fell from the railcars, and dove into the bushes out of the way of locomotives as they roared by.

If there was enough time left in the day, we scampered down to the river, under a big suspension bridge, tried to catch crayfish and attempted to hop along the river on rocks without falling in.

This level of freedom afforded to me while growing up was not unique. It was the norm in the households of my friends as well. As amazing as all of this may seem to someone born after 1980 or so, our parents were not guilty of child neglect, at least not by 1970s standards. We just had way less parental supervision than what children experience today.

The result was a group of kids who learned, believe it or not, employability skills. At 11, I played in an organized baseball league that was devoid of adult interference, with the exception of a gym teacher sort who showed up to umpire the games. Who batted in what order and who played what position was determined by who arrived first on their bike (punctuality). If a kid couldn’t hit the ball well or was no good at the position he picked, he would be moved down the order (resiliency) or to right field (ability to accept criticism) by the member of the team who had the most interpersonal influence (leadership).

As summer turned to fall and we put away our baseball gloves in favor of the pigskin, quarterbacks would duck into the huddle and draw receiver routes on their left palm with the index finger of their right hand (deliver and follow direction). We even managed to settle conflicts about such controversies as whether a kid crossed the goal line before being tackled – in no pads or helmets by the way – without the involvement or an adult (conflict resolution). Sometimes we did so by coin flip and I can’t count how many times my touchdowns were reversed even though I knew without a doubt I had scored (life’s not always fair). I could go on.

Contrast this to how we raise our kids today. Protected by play groups, organized sports, a helmet for every occasion and parents who track every move of their children — is it any wonder our young people join the workforce without employability skills?

In the book “The Coddling of the American Mind” (Greg Lukainoff and Jonathan Haidt, Penguin Random House, 2019) the authors posit that the child abduction paranoia of the 1990s brought about by a handful of high profile abductions sensationalized by cable news, among other factors, led to an entire generation of parents intent on removing any and all risk that their child could be abducted.

Never mind that the risk of an individual child being abducted by strangers is so infinitesimal as to be virtually statistically insignificant. Gone are the unsupervised walks to school, balancing on train tracks and river rocks, unorganized pick-up games and all of the lessons in employability skills that go with them.

Before the next generation of advanced manufacturing talent comes of age, perhaps parents need to ask themselves whether overparenting is part of the employability skills problem. And when employers interview potential team members, perhaps a question such as, “Tell me about your childhood, how you spent your free time and what risks you were allowed to take” has its place in the job interview.