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Is Lack of ‘Soft Skills’ Due to Poverty, Generation, or Both?

Jennifer Moore

Deanna McNew works at PenMac in West Plains, Missouri. In a nutshell, she helps job-seekers and businesses connect. But she’s noticing a trend: employers are reporting that workers lack so-called “soft skills” – especially timeliness and attendance.

I ask her if this happens every day.

“Absolutely. Sometimes, the messages are quite long. We have quite a few on our answering machine and several call in. Or clients notify us that so-and-so isn’t at work, and, ‘Can you see where they’re at,’” McNew said.

Poverty can play a role in the development and execution of these skills, she said—and transportation is a good example.

“Their tires are bald. Their vehicles may not run very well. They’ve bought a 500 dollar vehicle that constantly needs to be repaired or maintained or something fixed on it,” McNew said.

Dr. Matt Hudson is the Dean of Technical Education at Ozarks Technical Community College in Springfield. He says when someone is focused on where they’ll sleep that night or how they’ll find their next meal, good eye contact and communication skills are simply not the priority.

A technical school setting can help cultivate those skills because the students are involved in practical doing, not just academic theory.

Hudson has also heard feedback from employers who are tired of workers not showing up on time.

“So, employers are willing, really now, they’ll take someone almost with less training as long as they have the ability to be there on time and be there regularly and contribute—which, I didn’t think we’d see that type of thing. It’s really coming from lots of different types of work,” Hudson said.

Hudson says there may also be a generational factor here—that perhaps the work ethic of today’s younger generation is just different than, say, Baby Boomers.

But whether this trend is caused by poverty, or generation, or both, it has an effect on economic development.

Lindsay Haymes is Vice President of Workforce Development at the Springfield Area Chamber of 

Credit Jennifer Moore / KSMU
Lindsay Haymes is the Vice President for Workforce Development at the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce.


She says when a company wants to come to Springfield, they’ll evaluate the existing labor pool. For example: what skills sets are out there?

“Soft skills are a step further, though. And that comes more anecdotally. So when companies are on the ground looking at the potential to locate in Springfield, or maybe relocate here, or even potentially expand, they’re going to be asking those questions out in the community. They’ll be asking peers. They’ll be asking, you know, folks that they run into at their hotels or at the restaurants that they’re               visiting. Because they want to get a sense of the work ethic of a community,” said Haymes.

And that work ethic—including those behaviors so critical to being a good employee—is learned, often from an early age.

“That’s why, for years, we’ve supported early childhood education initiatives in their community. Because we know that that investment into children when they’re young so often impacts children for the rest of their lives,” Haymes said.

Back at PenMac in West Plains, Deanna McNew is able to give an interesting perspective—that’s because she’s been working in this office for 24 years. And the poverty level hasn’t changed much in Howell County over that time—but work behaviors have.

“I can remember 20-something years ago, it was one of the first things that happened in the mornings. People called in immediately. Or we had messages on the answering machine that, you know, they weren’t going to work for whatever reason it was. Now, it may be 10 or 11 o’clock before they call—and they were supposed to be at work at 6 or 7 o’clock in the morning,” McNew said.

Programs like GO CAPS in Springfield and GOCAT in West Plains are designed to make sure today’s students can collaborate on a team project, dress professionally and give a firm handshake. The next question is: how do you put a grade on those things?

Jennifer Moore is Missouri State University’s Journalist-in-Residence and a KSMU contributor focusing on public affairs journalism.

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