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Employers Discount School Factors In Hiring Decisions

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Student grades, teacher recommendations, and school reputation rank last among the factors considered by employers hiring non-supervisory workers, according to a federal study released last week.

At the top of the list were the applicant's attitude, communications skills, and work experience, followed by any recommendations from the employer's current workers or from the applicant's previous employers. Industry-based credentials, years of completed schooling, and scores on tests administered during job interviews fell in the middle.

"This shows a real schism and a lack of confidence [in schools] that I think is really disturbing," said Marion Pines, a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins University. "It sends a message to kids that employers don't care about what happens to you in school. And that's exactly the message we don't want to send."

The U.S. Education Department's office of educational research and improvement sponsored the study. Its findings were based on a survey designed by the National Center on the Educational Quality of the Workforce at the University of Pennsylvania and administered by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Researchers interviewed managers at more than 3,000 companies, asking how employers recruit and hire workers, how they organize the workplace, and what they believe the role of education and training is in developing a skilled workforce.

The study also found that roughly 57 percent of employers think the skills necessary for production or support jobs have increased over the past three years. About 39 percent think they have remained the same, and only 5 percent say they have decreased.

Eighty-one percent of employers said they paid for or provided formal training, either on the job or at a school or technical institute. The more employees a company had, the more likely it was to provide training, the report says.

Employers Chided

Ms. Pines said the finding that employers tend to disregard grades was discouraging but not surprising. She suggested it points to the importance of developing better school-to-work systems.

But she chided employers: "It's one thing to sit back and say, 'Schools do a lousy job,' but if employers don't look at the grades kids get in school, how are kids supposed to take it more seriously?"

Others agreed the survey confirmed what experts have been saying for a long time--that employers are more concerned about applicants' attitudes than skills and that there are few incentives in the job market for students who are not college-bound to do well in high school.

"There's nothing new in these conclusions," said Thomas R. Bailey, the director of the Institute on Education and the Economy at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Column Wrap

But Mr. Bailey said a more detailed analysis of the survey results may shed light on questions such as what type of businesses tend to be satisfied or dissatisfied with workers and whether companies that invest in upgrading equipment are more or less likely to invest in worker training.

Value of Internships

Stephen Hamilton, the chairman of human development and family studies at Cornell University, said it was ironic that improving the transition from school to work requires a greater degree of partnership between schools and business, yet the survey results indicate a climate of separation and distrust.

As the director of the Cornell Youth and Work program, Mr. Hamilton has found that employers' attitudes about the abilities of young people tend to improve after working with student interns.

In Cornell's program, about 60 students from seven schools in Broome County, N.Y., are working at 11 area companies. The teenagers, most of whom earn average grades, participate in such jobs as performing tests in pathology laboratories and using electronic microscopes to control the quality of photographic paper.

"They can do that," Mr. Hamilton said, "because they have both the opportunity and support coming from the school and from adult workers in the firms."

Copies of "Educational Quality of the Workforce--National Employer Survey" are available free from The National Center on the Educational Quality of the Workforce, University of Pennsylvania, 4200 Pine St., 5A, Philadelphia, Pa. 19104-4090; telephone, (800) 437-9799.

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