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Work Habits, Not Skills, Cited

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Businesses that hire high-school graduates are more troubled by their attitudes toward work than by their lack of academic abilities, two reports released this summer conclude.

"There may be a general decline in the quality of American schools--our survey doesn't address that issue," according to one of the reports. "But if there is a decline, we find little evidence that it is of great concern to American employers of high-school graduates."

That report, entitled "The Quality of American High School Graduates: What Personnel Officers Say and Do About It," was written by Robert L. Crain of the Center for So-cial Organization of Schools at The Johns Hopkins University.

Funded by the National Institute of Education, the study attempted to determine whether America's ability to compete with foreign businesses is jeopardized because the high-school graduates corporations hire lack academic skills, as the Education Department's report, "A Nation at Risk," indicated.

Grades Ranked

But despite such charges, only 12 percent of the 4,080 personnel managers and employers surveyed by Mr. Crain said they considered high-school grades to be "very important" for the level of work required of their new employees.

Mr. Crain said they considered high-school grades to be "very important" for the level of work required of their new employees.

The respondents ranked grades sixth in a list of seven criteria considered in hiring.

However, 94 percent of those surveyed rated dependability "extremely important" for success on the job.

"This means they're looking for an employee who will come to work regularly and on time," Mr. Crain said.

Basic literacy, defined as being "able to read materials about as difficult as the daily newspaper," was rated as important by 65 percent of the employers, and basic mathematics was rated important by 56.5 percent. Advanced reading and mathematics skills were rated as important by a minority of those polled, with 22.3 percent and 10.8 percent, respectively, calling them so.

Making a positive impression in the interview was ranked by employers as the most important in getting the job, with 76 percent responding that it is a major consideration.

Fifty-six percent of the respondents said it is very important to have a strong recommendation from a manager in the firm who knows the candidate personally. Positive letters from previous employers and character references are also significantly more influential than grades, according to the survey.

Conference Board Report

A study by The Conference Board, a nonprofit business research organization, offered similar findings.

"Reading, writing, and simple math skills are basic to practically any job--but so also is a willingness to show up, to take directions, to work together, and to be responsible for your job," said E. Patrick McGuire, who, with Leonard Lund, wrote the study report--"The Role of Business in Precollege Education."

Many of the complaints expressed by participants in the board's study centered on the low level of responsibility demonstrated by the high-school graduates they hire.

"The recent recession and shortage of jobs have helped us somewhat, but we still have a basic problem convincing the high-school graduates that there is an ethic of responsibility in the workplace that requires that you show up for work," said one utility executive cited in the report.

"Businesses can teach new hires how to add--if they have to--but they can't teach them how to take their job seriously," said Mr. McGuire. He and Mr. Lund are staff members of The Conference Board.

Concern for Education

Based on a survey of 500 human-resource and public-affairs executives, the study showed a greater level of concern for education than among employers than did Mr. Crain's findings.

"Business is vitally concerned with the kind of education provided by the secondary schools," wrote Mr. McGuire and Mr. Lund.

But they added that "nearly all of the companies questioned say that the newly hired high-school graduates have had no noticeable impact on lowering product or service quality standards."

The businesses surveyed reported that the level of learning of recent high-school graduates is adequate in all areas except writing skills.

The study found that there were almost no cases in which businesses suffered a shortage of students adequately trained in mathematics and science.

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