QC Chamber bemoans work-ready grad shortage

(Special to the Tribune)

Just a stone’s throw from a 223,000-square-foot charter high school designed to equip kids for vocational technical careers, the Queen Creek Chamber of Commerce last week brought together 140 business and higher education to find ways to address the gap between high school graduates and what employers say are unqualified workers.

“I don’t have those answers,” said Queen Creek Chamber of Commerce President Chris Clark. “So, let’s bring in the people who do.”

The lack of workforce-ready high school graduates is an ongoing problem, business and education professionals said at the Queen Creek BizEd Summit on the Arizona State University Polytechnic campus, now in its sixth year.

Clark said there are themes emerging that the Chamber gauges through regular business surveys.

“They don’t have the soft skills,” Clark said. “They don’t have the abilities that they need to be successful in the workplace.

“Part of that comes from not having realistic expectations of what it means to go to work. Part of it’s from not knowing why each job is important to the team.”

Getting students to understand that, though, has been a challenge in recent years.

For example, at a recent Town Council meeting, economist Alan Maguire, a consultant for Queen Creek, addressed the issue during his state of the economy presentation.

“There seems to be over the last 15 years a lack in the fundamental attractiveness of work as a good in and of itself,” Maguire said. “Our education system is not preparing our students for work – which can be unpleasant.”

Educators, students, recruiters and business leaders are trying to meet the high school graduates where they are, realizing that not all of them will want to go on to college.

But they say they are having trouble recruiting qualified job candidates.

“Absolutely,” said James Grizzard, a talent acquisition specialist with Dignity Health.

“I just feel that it’s the market overall. People aren’t as engaged or they don’t want to work, but I feel that events like this can help us find those individuals who didn’t know that opportunities exist.”

During this summit, attendees networked, broke into small groups and came up with ideas.

They not only discussed how to better educate students about potential employment opportunities, but vice versa, too – helping potential employers know where to find qualified graduates with career aspirations that may be different than they used to be.

“I think trying to find value besides just a paycheck is important for my generation,” said Combs High School student Quinton Kendall. “A workplace should be somewhere you want to go, not just someplace that you have to be and it should be someplace you’re comfortable being at.”

Kendall said there is a misconception today that high school kids should be willing to take a minimum wage job just to have a job because it is really all that they are qualified for when, in fact, they want more than that.

“People have always wanted to know that their work has purpose,” Clarke said. “It’s just a matter of whether they find that out at a teenage year or a midlife year.”

Business owners in Queen Creek are willing to help and are looking for ways to be involved. But say there is no template for how to bridge the gap between interested students and employee-hungry companies.

“As a business owner, who do I speak to?” asked Mark Leonard, owner of Jeremiah’s Italian Ice in Queen Creek. “Who do I go to to offer my volunteer services? And the school district, who do they turn to from a business perspective?”

Some in the education community deny that there is a problem at all. Rather, they say, success is a matter of making sure there is consistent message reaching the right students in the right places.

“The problem or the challenge that comes is connecting the students with what they’re interested in,” said Kevin Imes, youth external affairs coordinator for the East Valley Institute of Technology.

Once they find something that they are interested in, he said, “school is no longer a burden for them, but an opportunity.”

Imes cited as evidence the 97% graduation rate at technical high schools like EVIT as opposed to lower figures at traditional schools.

Clark said the Chamber will take all of the information it collected from breakout groups at the summit and turn it into data they can use to help address the “ready-to-work” issue, incorporating it into upcoming job fairs.

“In order to get people to participate year after year,” Clark said, “it’s really important they know those ideas are being put into use and that it’s having real world, positive effect.”