Prospective employers to schools: Focus on teaching ‘soft skills’

NEW ULM – “Soft skills” rank at the top of desired skills that prospective employers wish to see local schools teach students, according to District 88 Superintendent Jeff Bertrang.

Bertrang and other educators in recent months have promoted a focused dialogue with business and industry, city officials and post-secondary institutions, in an attempt to determine how the local school system can better meet the needs of both potential employers and their prospective employees.

The initiative seeks to build up collaboration among all stakeholders in the process.

The district initiated the effort, beginning with meetings with industry leaders last December. About 30-35 local business leaders participated in the first meeting, said Bertrang.

Since then, he and others have also met with representatives of banks, insurance, investment and human resource firms, and held a joint meeting with city officials, to determine needs and discuss potential collaborations.

The district started the process because it wanted to find out whether and how it could modify its programs, including its vocational offerings, to better prepare students for a variety of post-secondary education and career options.

In part, the effort was motivated by a perceived disconnect: while local companies report that they cannot find qualified employees, local school graduates are frequently unaware that jobs that can provide a good living, and support a family, exist, right here, in the very community where they grew up.

Interestingly, the meetings with business executives revealed that prospective employers are less concerned with any technical skills that schools can teach students, school leaders found out.

Employers said, time and again, that they can train employees on the technical aspects of a specific job.

Instead, employers identified soft skills – such as showing up for work on time, working well with others, being pro-active, knowing how to approach, and being able to solve, a problem – as the most critical skills that schools can teach employees.

For the school district, the focus on collaboration with business and industry ties in with an ongoing assessment and updating of its family and consumer science, business, industrial technology and agriculture curriculum, said Bertrang. The process, among other things, fits in with developing a district plan in response to the state World’s Best Workforce legislation.

The schools are exploring collaborations such as job shadowing, job fairs and internships to best accomplish the goal of preparing students well for the most individually suitable post-secondary option.

They are also focusing on collaboration with technical schools in the region and state – such as working with South Central College, which will host open-campus Fridays for local students, or making students aware of a 3M-sponsored “mechatronics” program at Alexandria Technical College, in some examples.

These initiatives logically tie in with another concerted effort at the high school – to build itself up as a “magnet” for students from other area schools, by offering a slate of college-level classes on the local campus, and making them available to both New Ulm Public and other students.

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