Here are some stories from the new world of work.
A 29-year-old woman (I'll call her Chris) is trying to land a job as a communications professional. She's a personable self-starter, with undergraduate and master's degrees from good universities, plus two diplomas. Currently she's working at her third unpaid internship, which basically consists of getting coffee and fixing her boss's iPod. Then there's an equally personable young man (call him Pat), 25, with a degree in international relations. At least he's getting paid for being miserably underemployed – he's a hotel concierge.
What's wrong with this picture? Sure, jobs are scarce. But Chris and Pat are exactly the kind of people employers say they want. They have an abundance of what are known as "soft skills," which make them prime candidates for success.
"Everywhere, employers are looking to recruit young people with a strong complement of soft skills, such as the ability to communicate, think critically and work in teams," John Manley, president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, said in a recent speech.
The real skills gap, business leaders say, is not the shortage of oil-field engineers and the glut of history BAs. It's about the shortage of young people who are good at problem-solving, communication, teamwork, time management, persistence, loyalty and dedication. Survey after survey reports that businesses can't find enough workers who are motivated, flexible and organized. As a recent piece in Time magazine declared, "The entry-level candidates who are on tap to join the ranks of full-time work are clueless about the fundamentals of office life. "
In one survey, conducted by textbook rental giant Chegg, only 39 per cent of employers surveyed said the recent graduates they'd interviewed were prepared for work. They also complain that students aren't willing to take entry-level positions, which they view as dead-end jobs.
What's gone wrong? Business likes to blame the education system, which too often fails to instill basic skills and churns out graduates who are unprepared for real life. The alleged narcissism and entitlement of the younger generation also get the usual mention.
But Barbara Moses doesn't buy it. She's a work-life expert and bestselling author who has worked with a lot of young job-seekers (including Chris, whose story she recounts on her website, www.bmoses.com).
"As recently as 10 years ago, organizations would hire for potential," Ms. Moses told me. "But now they want people who can hit the ground running." Employers have also become extremely risk-averse about new hires – another factor that stacks the deck against the twentysomethings. It's hard to prove that you can do the job if nobody will give you the first one. As for the soft-skills gap, she thinks it's overblown. For starters, today's young adults have collaborated and worked in teams all their lives.
The trouble is that few companies do training any more, even the kind of informal short-term training that can break in someone new. Today, there's hardly any way to learn on the job, except through unpaid internships. And many companies are too inflexible about job requirements, according to Peter Cappelli, management professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and author of Why Good People Can't Get Jobs. He says they decide that only a "unicorn" will do, then complain when they can't find one.
Ms. Moses also doesn't believe twentysomethings are generally in need of an attitude adjustment. "I don't think they feel entitled," she said. "They don't have any illusions about workplace realities. If anything, I'm impressed by their humility."
As for dedication, it's true that not all young adults want to sacrifice their lives on the altar of the stress god. But maybe that's not such a bad thing.
Whatever you believe about the skills gap, though, it's clear that the route from school to work – and adulthood – is way too long. Few people really need two diplomas and two degrees. Forcing them to spend five or more years in postsecondary education and become ridiculously overcredentialled is a colossal waste of time, money and talent.
The best way to prepare young adults for the world of work is not to keep them trapped in classrooms and their parents' basements until their mid- or late-20s. It's to find a way for them to work. That's the real gap we need to bridge.