Is it rude to check Facebook during a work meeting?
How about telling your boss you think his idea is no good?
Is it OK to come to work 10 minutes late?
And, most importantly, is the arrival of millennials into the factories and offices of America really the end of the workplace as we know it?
It’s an important question because millions of millennials enter the workforce every year and within 20 years will dominate American business.
Employers have complained loud and long that millennials – those born between the early 1980s and early 2000s – lack soft skills.
Soft skills are the personal qualities and abilities that a person brings to work, rather than any specific skill. They are as basic as coming to work on time and as complex as knowing how to persuade a room full of colleagues that your point of view is right.
It’s giving a day’s work for a day’s pay, it’s treating co-workers and bosses with respect, it’s reading the emotions of the person across the table.
But businesses report that they are seeing more young workers lacking these skills, even as they seem fluent in the hard skills useful to thrive in the high-tech work environment.
Soft skills are nothing new. They used to go by terms such as “character,” “grit,” “tact,” “stick-to-itivness,” “a good people person” — the names have changed with the generations, but the qualities seem the same.
To some extent, soft skills are really about figuring out and conforming to expectations on how to behave in an organization.
So, are millennials really lacking some of these skills?
“I know they are,” said Ellen Decker, 29, a tax accountant with Allen, Gibbs & Houlik.
Decker is the incoming chairman for Young Professionals of Wichita. She understands her busy, over-stimulated generation.
Soft skills comes from long human interaction, she said. It takes years of practice to learn how to negotiate the adult world and its complex demands — that’s what growing up is.
But technology has come between people, making interaction both more constant and less rich. Think texting vs. talking face-to-face.
“The generation before us, they had a lot of that training just growing up,” she said. “Your day to day was interacting with people.
“Now our day is interacting with our phone, interacting with our computer and maybe a small circle of friends.”
Others have blamed their baby boomer and Gen X parents, and the public schools, for coddling their children, leading them to believe that their opinions were always important, that they could be successful without a lot of work.
Amber Neises, human resources director of Scholfield Auto Group, agreed that she has seen it in action, and it causes friction.
“We’ve had some baby boomers who complain that millennials are not dressing the right way, who want flexible hours, who don’t want to wait to get ahead – and that they (the baby boomers) had to work 20 years to get ahead, had to wear a suit or stockings,” she said.
Daniel White works with Decker at AGH, but as a consultant. He recently hosted a seminar for corporate managers on how to coach those new employees.
He acknowledges the critique that some complaints about millennials come from older people who may not appreciate having to change — remember how much the baby boomer’s parents appreciated the hippies with their long hair and demands for a new society?
People who started working when electric typewriters were high-tech may resent finding out they are actually less valuable than the 22-year-old social media marketing whiz.
But, White said, experts who have studied the phenomenon for decades say the gap is more basic than changing fashion. It’s employees’ inability to deal with people and organizations, sometimes because they don’t know how and sometimes because they don’t want to.
Companies contribute to the problem by hiring young talent solely on technical skills — what’s on the resume — and taking the soft skills for granted.
But problem employees are usually the ones with poor soft skills, he said. They clash with superiors, can’t plan ahead or just aren’t motivated.
“There’s a saying: You hire for hard skills and fire for soft skills,” he said.
But sometimes they can be coached, said Dan Hamel, human resources director for Metal-Fab, which makes commercial and residential ventilation products.
“Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t,” he said. “It really boils down to how receptive the individual is, how much they want to progress.”
But wait a minute …
Decker, the young accountant, said that millennials often have a point.
Yes, she said, sometimes millennials have problems. But some of what corporate managers interpret as laziness or disrespect is simply a different, but appropriate, attitude toward work.
Sometimes, she said, the company needs to adapt.
“We’re more flexible, work-life balance,” she said of her generation. “We’re going to get the work done when we can get it done, not, ‘We need to work 8 to 5.’ ”
Businesses need to figure out what really is core and can’t change, and what is preference and can change. And those businesses that don’t change will have trouble recruiting.
Coach for skills when they are needed and change the company rules when they aren’t needed, some say.
“I think everyone has hammered into the ground that we’re going to go where we’re going to go. We’re self-advocates,” Decker said.
“We see worth in ourselves, and we’re going to find a job that we love versus feeling that we have to take a job.”
Accountants have been in high demand for years, so AGH has adjusted to keep attracting young talent.
She said the company allows her flexible hours and she can work from home — which is crucial because she helps care for her two small children.
“That is what AGH gets,” she said. “They get the same work expectations, the same hour expectations, but we have the control.”
A recent visit to the Machining Technology class at Wichita Area Technical College found six high school students working away on three-axis, computer-numerical-control machines in a lab filled with machining equipment.
WATC is trying to head off soft-skills problems before students get into the workplace. So, in addition to a mandatory stand-alone class called Global Professional Standards, the college awards a “work ethic” grade in its technical courses along with the regular academic grade.
The grade runs from 0 to 3. Most students have in the 2 range, said instructor Justin Maples. The ethic grade travels with the student and tells a potential employer whether this applicant works hard or not.
Maples is a long-time machinist who believes in the value of soft skills. He recounted a conversation with the manager of local manufacturer on what he needed in job applicants.
“His main thing? ‘I just need somebody who will show up,’ ” Maples said of the company manager.
Maples said if he were a hiring manager, he would take the most conscientious student over the one with the highest skills grade. You can always teach more hard skills, he said.
One of the students, Jacob Raines, a senior at Wichita Northwest High, said he understood the need for the work ethic grade.
“They need to know you’re going to show up on time,” he said.
Most popular soft skills
Top 10 most popular soft skills, in order of importance that companies say they look for when hiring:
1. Strong work ethic
3. Positive attitude
5. Team oriention
6. Organized; can manage multiple priorities
7. Works well under pressure
8. Effective communicator
Source: 2014 CareerBuilder Survey