Taking Soft Skills for Granted?

Federal workforce training grants may be missing the boat when it comes to covering technical skills vs. soft skills.

By Gail Dutton

The U.S. Department of Labor will award a total of $2 billion over the next four years through the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program. Grants will support the development and improvement of postsecondary programs of two years or less that use evidence-based or innovative strategies to prepare students for successful careers in growing and emerging industries. The question is: Will these and other programs go beyond teaching technical skills to cover the soft, interpersonal skills that remain crucial in today’s business world?

This is a key issue as the IT industry believes technical skills alone aren’t enough to get the job done. Managers in a spring survey by the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) bemoaned the lack of soft skills such as teambuilding, project management, innovation, and analytic abilities among their technologically savvy employees. Others just entering the workforce also often need to develop work ethics, leadership capabilities, and a commitment to lifelong learning.

The DDI Global Leadership Forecast 2011, a survey of more than 12,423 leaders, reports the same trend. Only 38 percent consider the quality of leadership in their organizations very good or excellent. They say fostering creativity, managing change, executing organizational strategy, and developing talent are among the most-needed skills. Therefore, training often focuses upon creating a customer-centric culture, working in a LEAN/Six Sigma environment, and going green.

“If your people can’t communicate clearly and work together, the quality of your processes is irrelevant,” insists Bev Hickam, Workforce Development director for Mineral Area College, Park Hills, MO. “You’ll have poor productivity, high turnover, and an unstable working atmosphere.”

Federal Funding

Federal workforce training grants are administered by states through community colleges, state “One-Stop Centers,” and Workforce Investment Boards. Terry Watson, director of the Workforce Solutions Division of the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, explains the funding process: “Once federal funds come to the state, we set the policies and guidelines and fund the workforce investment boards, which contract with providers for services. In Oklahoma, each area of the state has unique issues, so a local board composed of 51 percent employers sets local policies in each area.”

Businesses can’t access the grants themselves. Therefore, they work closely with community colleges and other training organizations to write grant proposals that meet the terms of the existing funding opportunities made available through workforce training boards, one-stop career centers, and other government organizations. Most of the funding is earmarked for unemployed and under-employed workers, but many states also are enhancing training for incumbent workers as part of their economic development initiatives.

In the effort to bring manufacturing back to America, federal training funds concentrate upon enhancing technical skills. Most do, however, allow soft skills to be included alongside technical training, even though it may not be specified in the solicitations for grant applications. For example, Federal Trade Act Adjustment Grants—which have up to $500 million available to fund training programs that can be completed within two years—may incorporate soft skills. Therefore, grant writers must take the initiative.

State Rules

“Government procurement is difficult in general, and soft skills training is particularly subjective,” Watson says. It’s difficult to define and to measure. Consequently, many grant writers don’t even consider asking for funds to improve soft skills. Because the funds are allocated through the states, the rules vary. In some states, funds for soft skills training are available only for non-managerial employees. Other criteria typically require that the skills are transferable, and identify skills by standard occupation and wage codes, says Natalie Greenwell, director, Center for Workforce and Economic Development, Collin College, Plano, TX.

Workforce agencies rely upon multiple funding streams to serve a broad constituency. For example, “Denver’s Office of Economic Development’s workforce development program has three to four main federal funding sources,” says Ledy R. Garcia-Eckstein, acting director of Workforce Development. Although they focus on different groups—underemployed and unemployed adults, and youth just entering the workforce—the programs have a strong emphasis on workforce readiness training.

Budget Stretchers

In Denver, the number of people seeking jobs training has doubled in recent years, while “funding has been cut at the federal and state level. It’s been very difficult,” Garcia-Eckstein acknowledges. Denver stretches its training dollars by using online training modules to replace some individual sessions or augment group training. Online Work Keys modules, for example, measure skills people need on the job, including listening for understanding, finding information, teambuilding, and reading for information. Those who fail the Work Keys tests can build their skills with Key Train training modules.

Online soft skills training modules are integral to the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. So, when budget cuts triggered the summer 2012 closure of the Workforce Oklahoma Training Institute (one of the oldest continuously operating training institutes in the national workforce network), training was able to continue. According to interim Director Eddie Wood, “The soft skills are taught online now using Career Ready 101, an ACT program available on the Oklahoma Department of Commerce Website.”

Cooperation with other local organizations bolsters existing programs. Denver partners with local contractors, including Servicios de La Raza, Urban Peak, Denver Housing Authority, and the Urban League, as well as with the public library, community colleges, and other organizations to train workers in such basic skills as interviewing, writing resumés and cover letters, and crafting an elevator speech.

In Missouri, colleges formed a consortium to win and administer workforce training grants. Hickam, who specializes in customized training for Missouri companies, points out that community colleges are a vital link between businesses and government training funds. “Missouri employers say they can teach employees to run a machine, but they turn to community colleges to build effective soft skills,” she says. “Technology is important, but we’ve been encouraged to incorporate soft skills training in the grant proposals, too.”

Mineral Area College’s approach folds interpersonal skills into technical training classes rather than establishing separate classes. Hickam did this a few years ago when the college launched a renewable energy technology degree. Additionally, the degree requires a mandatory “preparation for employment” class that incorporates communications and teambuilding skills. “In higher education, a person could receive a Masters degree and be highly intelligent, but never have developed good soft skills,” Hickam points out.

Oklahoma and Denver each offer career training certifications as individuals complete training. In Oklahoma, the career readiness credential (CRC) is based on three core Work Key assessments:

  • Applied math
  • Reading for information
  • Locating information

“A CRC+ indicates they also have taken soft skills training,” Watson says. Soft skills training is initiated through the career pathways process and through contracted pre-vocational training.

For many organizations, federal grants provide a relatively unexplored source of training funds. Working with community colleges and training organizations allows businesses to tap these funds. Knowing that funding for soft skills training may be included in grant applications is often the difference between funding or not funding that type of training—the training that many organizations say is sorely needed in today’s work environment.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.