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Millennials Need to Work on Bridging Skills Gap


Last week, the editor of a newspaper in the Pacific Northwest emailed to check a reference for one of my former students. A position had opened up because the editor had let go a staffer who kept misspelling the names of people in photo captions. In another conversation earlier in the week, the owner of a Maryland consulting company mentioned that she routinely eliminates millennial job candidates when they can’t follow basic directions on a writing test.

Sound familiar? Supervisors of young adults sometimes complain about lack of skills among this generation. Turns out their complaints are on target. American millennials are among the world’s least skilled workers in three key areas, according to a recent Educational Testing Service study. “Abysmal” is how an ETS researcher characterized the scores.

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The study measured the job skills of adults, ages 16 to 65, in 23 countries in three different areas. Not only do Gen Y Americans lag far behind their overseas peers by every measure, they even score lower than other age groups of Americans. (Japan and Finland were No. 1 and 2 in all categories.) The findings for U.S. millennials:

  • Literacy (the ability to understand and use written text). They scored lower than 15 of the participating countries. Only millennials in Spain and Italy had lower scores.
  • Numeracy (basic mathematics skills). They ranked last, along with Italy and Spain.
  • Problem solving (using digital technology). They also ranked last, along with the Slovak Republic, Ireland and Poland.

Education apparently had little impact, as the findings held even among the best performing and most educated, those who are native born and those from the highest socioeconomic backgrounds. The report concluded:

While it is true that, on average, the more years of schooling one completes, the more skills one acquires, this report suggests that far too many are graduating from high school and completing postsecondary educational programs without receiving adequate skills.

To understand how this translates to a work environment — and how ambitious millennials can counter these findings — we talked with Heather R. Huhman, a career and workplace expert who also founded her own HR firm, Come Recommended.

Huhman, who routinely hires young writers for Come Recommended, was not surprised by the ETS results. “I see a lot of unqualified young professionals who don’t have basic soft skills like following directions, teamwork and problem solving,” she said. As an example, she referred to her company’s entry-level online writing test in which job candidates are asked to write one article with five different headlines. What does she get? Very often, five articles with five headlines! And as far as problem solving, too often she also sees millennials complain about a problem to an employer but not offer any solutions.

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Even when it comes to technology, this supposedly wired generation can’t whiz around programs like Excel and PowerPoint. Don’t even ask about basic math. Who needs to know how to figure percentages when a smartphone can do it?

On a positive note, Huhman offered some suggestions as to how job seekers can proactively counter these negative perceptions.

  • When applying for a job online, follow the directions exactly as the company instructs to complete forms and attach documents.
  • Know Word and PowerPoint backwards and forwards, Huhman said, or take a course to improve these critical skills.
  • Never go to an interview without thoroughly researching a company and preparing intelligent questions to demonstrate your background knowledge.


A key takeaway to ETS test results is that soft skills such as following directions and problem solving are critically important in addition to the ability to communicate in person and online. “If you can’t communicate effectively, then it will cost you in terms of opportunities,” Huhman said.

Wondering how you'd fare on the test?   Click here.

Mary W. Quigley’s blog, Mothering21 ,  tackles parenting of emerging adults and beyond.

Photo: denis pc/iStock

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