One of the many woes of today’s society, we are told, is that our schools are producing graduates totally unprepared to be a part of the workforce. Ammunition for that viewpoint comes from a recent study by the Social Science Research Council of 2,300 undergraduates, which discovered that 36% of them demonstrated no significant gains in critical thinking or written communication during their four years in college. Another survey found business leaders moaning that their new hires lacked, among other things, reading comprehension, a good work ethic, and writing skills.

This hand-wringing has led to talk of a skills gap and what to do about it. But what seems to be absent in these discussions is a recognition of the fact that complaints about kids entering the workforce have been with us for as long as there have been older generations hiring younger generations. On that score, it is interesting to go back in time and see what managers thought of the young people they hired in the 1970s. Those youngsters, of course, are now the ones doing the hiring and complaining about the quality of people filling out employment forms.

Managers of the time did not paint a pretty picture of the critical-thinking skills demonstrated by kids entering the 1970s workforce. “Increasingly we hear from leaders in business, professions, and government that it is easy to find people who can do what they are told, but difficult to find people who know what to do without being told,” lamented York University professor David Bakan in 1969. Nor were the communication abilities of that generation anything special. Researchers from Ohio University and Eastern Michigan University, writing in the Journal of Business Communication in the mid-1970s, found that many new graduates had grandiose views of their own abilities to write reports and convey concepts verbally that weren’t shared by their supervisors.

I have concluded that some of the bellyaching about work skills is just an older generation forgetting how many facets of performance can come only from experience. If I am still around in 30 years, I fully expect to read about managers, who today are supposedly ill-prepared to hold down their first jobs, grumbling over the abject unreadiness of the kids.

Finally, we should remember that academic excellence is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to career preparation. On that score, consider the career of someone who might be the poster child for poor high-school preparation, Don Mann. In his autobiography, he relates how a teacher once inquired about the location of his textbooks. Mann had to admit he had dumped them in his locker the first day of school and had since forgotten where the locker was.

This inauspicious start didn’t seem to slow Mann down, though. He eventually entered the Navy, earned two BS degrees and an MS degree, and retired as a SEAL/Chief Warrant Officer with a résumé that included time on the elite SEAL Team Six.

Not bad for somebody who graduated near the very bottom of his high-school class.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.