Business leaders decry Md. graduates' skills

Work force survey says lack of quality hurts the economy

September 06, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Maryland's business community delivered a stinging indictment yesterday of the quality of the state's high school and higher education graduates, saying the lack of qualified workers is hurting the economy.

Only 17 percent of the 633 Maryland companies surveyed gave high marks to the quality of public high school graduates, and just 42 percent thought community college graduates were being properly trained for the work force.

Even for graduates of Maryland's colleges and universities, fewer than 60 percent of businesses described them as excellent or above average, according to results of the state's third Workforce Educational Needs Assessment Survey.

"The employers recognize that continuous skill shortages affect the bottom line," said Randall M. Griffin, who is vice chairman of the Maryland Economic Development Commission and president of Corporate Office Properties Trust.

"Knowledge-based workers continue to be a requisite for our industry here in Maryland."

Maryland's top education officials didn't disagree with the results, and they and top corporate leaders said that the businesses community's dissatisfaction illustrates a greater need for companies to get involved in public schools.

"If employers want the desired product - a skilled, competent, conscientious work force - they're going to have to help us write the specifications," said Mary- land schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

"We want to up the ante for the high school diploma in Maryland, and that's going to be hard and painful."

The survey - conducted about every 18 months by the market research firm Hollander, Cohen & McBride - aims to show Maryland educators and economic development officials what the state must do to better prepare students for the work force.

"It isn't just what business wants, it's about students," said Raymond A. "Chip" Mason, chairman of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education and chief executive officer and chairman of Legg Mason Inc..

"Our purpose is to prepare the students of Maryland for the work force and the work place. It's not to make business happy."

In addition to the round- table and the economic development commission, the survey was sponsored by the Maryland Department of Education, the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, the Maryland Higher Education Commission and the Governor's Workforce Investment Board.

Despite the national economic slowdown, the survey found that 57 percent of Maryland companies expect to hire more employees next year. But those hiring efforts - and Maryland's economic recovery - are threatened by the lack of available qualified workers.

"This is our call to action," said Karen R. Johnson, Maryland's secretary of higher education. "We have to do better."

About three-quarters of Maryland companies reported having at least some difficulty finding qualified workers with graduate or professional degrees - about 20 percentage points higher than in the 1997 survey - and 58 percent of businesses said they are having trouble hiring qualified high school graduates.

"There is still optimism there, but the challenge is finding qualified people," said Scott McBride, president of the market research firm that conducted the survey.

The survey found that 73 percent of Maryland companies hire employees whose highest academic credential is a high school degree. But they complain that those employees have poor records of attendance and punctuality, and lack adequate writing and problem-solving skills.

To fix the situation, companies suggest that high school career and technology programs be expanded and that businesses and higher education work more closely together to develop training programs.

Robert J. Kemmery, principal of Baltimore County's Eastern Technical High School, said his program aims to ensure that graduates are prepared academically and with specific technical skills. "We set high expectations, just like they face in the work force," Kemmery said.

State educators and corporate leaders said the survey illustrates the need for Maryland's ambitious education reforms, including its new series of rigorous high school exams.

This year's ninth-graders will be the first to have the results of those exams placed on their high school transcripts, and in a couple of years those tests are expected to become a state requirement for graduation.

Employees being hired with only high school diplomas typically aren't the high-achieving ones who go to college - and those are the kinds of students who state officials worry will fail the new exams and be denied diplomas.

"A lot of what we're doing is spending money to try to fix things we had an opportunity to prevent up front," said Wayne A. Mills, chairman of the governor's work force investment board and chairman of New Millennium Ventures.

Mills said the governor and General Assembly need to provide money for the recommendations of the state Education Department. He said that includes expanded early childhood and prekindergarten programs and mentoring for inexperienced teachers - efforts that might decrease the number of students who would fail the high school exams.

"That's the prevention we need," he said.

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