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Lack of workforce skills lamented

October 24, 1997

By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

Staff Writer

A statewide survey showing Maryland employers are hurting for workers with basic vocational and technical skills isn't surprising, local business leaders said Thursday.

The survey results, announced Wednesday in Baltimore, included complaints about inadequate high school graduates from more than 40 percent of the 970 businesses that responded.

The survey, conducted by the Maryland Business Research Partnership through mail and phone interviews, also showed a high demand for qualified graduates from vocational programs and difficulty in hiring qualified manufacturing and skilled trades workers.

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About 46 percent of the businesses said they'd had problems hiring high school-educated applicants because of communication skills, and about 43 percent reported problems with their writing and reading skills.

The results are disturbing but not surprising, said John Howard, who started as economic development director for the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission last month.

"I've already in my short time here heard the work force is lacking in necessary skills," Howard said.

He said there's strong evidence that local high schools are graduating students who don't have the basic job skills and technical adaptability needed to meet the county's present and future needs.

It's a national problem, he said, but one that has to be licked if the county is to grow in high-paying jobs and per capital income.

"It is paramount that we escalate the curriculum level in our secondary education to cope with these shortcomings," Howard said.

There's definitely a shortage of skilled workers in the area, said Michael G. Callas, owner and president of Callas Contractors Inc. in Hagerstown.

Callas said he has heard business people complain that they get high school graduates who lack the basic skills to go into training programs.

"You've got to be able to do a little more than just plain read and write," said Callas, who said computer literacy and keyboard skills are vital.

The Washington County school system has started to address a lot of the concerns voiced in the survey, which mirrored things local business people have been saying, said Sandy Shepherd, coordinator for the county's Career Connections initiative.

The county has a number of programs that link educators and students with local business people to highlight various career possibilities and the qualifications needed for them, she said.

Since it was started in the county two years ago, Career Connections has mainly focused on showing the relevance of what's being taught in school to the work world, Shepherd said.

Local businesses have played a role in helping that effort, she said.

The push now is to upgrade curriculum, something business people really need to be a part of, Shepherd said.

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