Though willing, job hunters sometimes aren't ready, able


WE TALK a lot about the gaps. The gender gap. The digital divide. The salary gap. The generation gap. Owners vs. employees. Government vs. business. Labor vs. management.

Sometimes, schisms overwhelm commonalities. Sadly, I put forth another rift: the ability gap. It may be the most gaping workplace cleft of all.

Today's work force is riven between those who have the basic skills needed in most 21st-century jobs and those who don't.

Last year, one out of three job applicants failed pre-employment tests at workplaces that gave them. This isn't calculus or literary criticism. This is elementary math and reading.

To repeat: One-third of job applicants tested could not do simple math problems or read and write well enough to do the jobs they sought.

The American Management Association, which conducts an annual employment testing survey, says last year's 34.1 percent failure rate is a call to arms. Schools, government and employers need to get on the stick, the association says (though in more official language).

To which I add: So do job seekers.

We can tell schools to teach better. We can tell government to finance more school-to-work programs. We can tell companies to stop cutting out remedial training when they're wielding the budget ax. But the final responsibility lands on individuals.

It strains credulity to think a third of the work force has brains incapable of learning. Nor can we believe true learning disabilities affect a third of the population. Nor can we contend that poverty and lack of hard-working role models prevent learning. History proves otherwise.

The single most common complaint from employers -- especially small-business owners closest to the hiring and firing line -- is "you can't get good help nowadays."

Sure, some of the best and brightest folk ever seen are pouring out of schools and into the job market. The quality of part of the work force is second to none. But the ability gap slashes a nasty hole.

Yes, literacy is partly a function of opportunity. But opportunity is abundant. Lack of access isn't the big problem in America. The cancer grows from lack of individual commitment.

Students who skip school, who don't try to learn and who don't think the basic expectations of modern society apply to them will be shut out of jobs. They will be incapable of earning enough to sustain lifestyles they believe they're entitled to have.

And that's the real bugaboo. Decades of good fortune have wrapped American workers in an aura of entitlement. Just ask anyone interviewing job applicants.

Skilled, conscientious workers have a right to expect a job with good pay, benefits and respect. Would-be workers who couldn't be bothered to get the basic entry-level skills do not.

In the end, that's not just a problem for the losers. It's a problem for the two-thirds who could pass the rudimentary skills tests. The rest of us -- owners, managers, co-workers, taxpayers and consumers -- take up the slack and pay the price.

Diane Stafford wrote this article for the Kansas City Star, in which it first appeared.

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