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Business and the New Entry-Level Workforce

United Way and Anchorage community partners invest in Anchorage youth


Business is a never-ending cycle of finding and training new employees. Especially, perhaps, for entry-level positions, when often applicants have absolutely no job experience and little to no understanding of workplace expectations. United Way and community partners, including the Anchorage School District, nonprofits, and the business community, are taking a look at the whole education picture to prepare Anchorage’s young potential employees for work, all as part of the larger 90% by 2020 partnership, called Destination 2020 by the Anchorage School District.


90% by 2020

“Let’s start by clarifying what [90% by 2020] isn’t: it’s not a program, it’s a movement,” says June Sobocinski, VP of Education Impact for United Way Anchorage. “Our role [at United Way] is to create a space for the community to come together to get better results, in this particular case, around student outcomes and workforce readiness.”

Sobocinski says that more than ten years ago a movement began to improve measurable outcomes in terms of graduation and other benchmarks for students in the Anchorage School District, which extends from Girdwood to Chugiak. Anchorage School District graduation rates in 2013-2014 were 73.54 percent for the four-year cohort and 81.02 percent for the five-year cohort.

Sobocinski says 90% by 2020 is “a diverse partnership in the service of getting the right work happening to impact results for students” with more than one hundred individuals and organizations, including the school district, businesses, nonprofits, churches, early childhood education providers, and others. “It isn’t one strategy; it’s multiple things from birth to career,” she adds.

8th Grade Math Benchmark

United Way’s 90% by 2020 partnership specifically refers to one of the six Anchorage School District’s Destination 2020 goals “90 percent of students will graduate high school” by the year 2020.

There isn’t one data point that can indicate whether or not a young student will graduate from high school, but data has suggested that one indicator is a student’s proficiency in 8th grade math. Sobocinski says that students who are not proficient in 8th grade math are 25 percent more likely to drop out before graduation.

“That was a regression analysis that the Anchorage School District and the partnership did… All this data analysis also surfaced another really interesting thing: kids that stopped consistently attending [school] around the 4th or 5th grade level really fell off in terms of proficiency [in 8th grade math],” she continues. Those two factors, attendance in the late elementary school years and math proficiency in middle school or junior high, have a huge influence on a student’s likeliness to graduate from high school in four years. “Attendance is a huge thing that, holistically, systemically, if we can improve that, math would improve,” Sobocinski says.


Workforce Readiness Taskforce

Making sure that students graduate from high school is, of course, not the end of the road. The 90% by 2020 partnership also wanted to address how to prepare young adults to transition from high school to entry-level positions in the Anchorage workforce. Because of this concern, the Workforce Readiness Task Force was formed in September 2014, led by United Way’s Director of Business Engagement Kimberlee Stocker. Other members of the task force are Andrew Halcro, formerly with the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce; Joe Wahl, GCI; Lauren Caraghar, First National Bank Alaska; Debra Ahern, Cook Inlet Regional, Inc.; Ruth Schoenleben, Nine Star; Cheri Spink, School Business Partnership; Nancy Miller, Alaska SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) State Council; and Diane Maples, Career Technical Education and Counseling for the Anchorage School District.

Approximately half of the members of the task force work or direct HR departments in their respective companies, meaning many have had the opportunity to work with entry-level employees straight out of high school. The task force’s initial goal, then, was to expand from their own views “to gather the perception from the business community: what [other] HR directors are seeing from recent graduates entering into base, entry level positions and see what skills their employers ranked highest and lowest.”


2014 Workforce Readiness Survey

With that goal in mind, the task force created and the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce administered the 2014 Workforce Readiness Survey, receiving replies from 213 Anchorage businesses. “As a group we classified those [new employee skills/qualities] into five different groups: basic business skills, critical thinking and problem solving skills, time management skills, interpersonal skills, and personal qualities, and then we gave an option for comments,” Stocker says.

The results of the survey (online at 90by2020.org/workforce-readiness) were not overwhelmingly positive, though Stocker points out that these are the level of skills as perceived by employers. Of the twenty-nine skills/qualities surveyed, only three were rated at the “base acceptable” level or above, with the remainder as “needs improvement” or “severely lacking.” The three qualities that did come back as being acceptable were “willing to follow directives from supervisor,” “willingness to learn,” and “helps others.” Stocker says that the HR directors in the task force were actually encouraged by which three attributes were acceptable. “They were very excited that the three that were average were trainable qualities... skills can be taught; interpersonal qualities and who we are is harder to change,” she says.

Nancy Miller, director of the Alaska SHRM State Council and member of the Workforce Readiness Task Force, says that she wasn’t surprised at the survey results, especially since the survey is concerning young workers who have specifically transitioned directly from high school to the workplace. “That’s a drastic change,” Miller says. “At least when a student attends college many begin full or part time jobs and their transition might be a little easier. But I did like that it wasn’t all gloom and doom.”

Miller says that the fact that these young adults are willing to learn and be trained suggests that they will end up doing well, and adds that the workers are bright and smart and need more workforce ready guidance.

Joe Wahl, also on the task force and VP of Human Resources for GCI, says that he wasn’t entirely surprised at the results, although he was “surprised that they were as low overall.” In 2014 GCI hired, out of 2,820 applicants for entry-level positions, 236 employees; GCI has quite a bit of experience working with young employees right out of high school. Wahl says that the two biggest areas that need improvement, through his experience, are employees separating personal and professional uses of social media and issues around punctuality and attendance, observations that were reflected in the survey results. “[New workers] need to know that when they come into work, it’s different; it’s a different culture than high school. When you come into work and you close the door, you’re getting paid for your work and your attention at work; we’ve had success with setting the proper expectations early on in a formalized new hire orientation,” Wahl says.


What’s Next

Identifying a problem is the vital first step in addressing it—ideas and action are next. The Workforce Readiness Task Force is already preparing to move forward with the information acquired through this survey. The task force took an opportunity at the 2015 Anchorage Economic Development Council Economic Forecast Luncheon to ask gathered business community members how they would be most likely to involve themselves in solving the workforce readiness issue.

The number one response, Stocker says, was acting as a peer-to-peer champion, “basically just sharing best practices and programs they have in their business.”

“We’re looking at potentially, if we can do it, putting together an Internet toolkit,” Wahl says. “So if you have businesses that are willing to share their best practices, whether it’s presentations or procedures or whatever is helping them.” Other businesses would then have a resource without needing to develop training or procedures from scratch. He says this could especially be a benefit to small business leaders and management that may not have the resources of a training department or be able to afford pre-done training programs and materials.

The task force’s vision doesn’t end with the business community sharing best practices to train entry-level-position employees. “We’re also talking about doing an online toolkit for students,” Wahl says. “There are probably a lot of students that say, ‘I’m a little intimidated going to my first job; I’d like to know what the expectations are.’ And if they can, why not let them do a self-study course on some of this to prepare themselves?”

The Workforce Readiness Task Force wants to set in motion a system that would allow the Anchorage business community access to training tools to prepare a new generation of workers while simultaneously communicating to those employees, before they’re even hired, what expectations are. Everyone saves time, money, and potential issues.


Collaboration, Not Competition

Wahl is excited about his participation in the Workforce Readiness Task Force: “Anything that we can do to help prepare our new employees to be better and more productive is great,” he says. He continues, “I’ve been very pleased on the professionalism and the willingness of the business community—and not just the business community; we’ve got United Way and the Anchorage School District, and it’s a cross-pollination between business and community—engaged on trying to solve this very important issue… it’s a culture of cooperating and sharing that is amazing.”

Miller’s views are in a similar vein. “I’m very excited to be a part of this task force.” She says that she loves to work with high school students, and found herself participating in the task force, in part, because of the many opportunities she takes to volunteer to work with the youth. “Many of the students that I have met through my volunteer efforts are very bright and energetic. So if we can just find a way to get them on the right track in starting a career, that would be wonderful.”



Leaders Bringing up Leaders

A spirit of collaboration permeates the many moving parts of the 90% by 2020 partnership. Damian Bilbao, business development manager for BP, is a member of the Executive Committee of the 90% by 2020 Leadership Team, which is comprised of more than forty individuals from a variety of sectors, including nonprofits, the Anchorage School District, Alaska Native corporations, the University of Alaska, and large and small privately owned businesses that operate in the state. Bilbao says, “All of us are members of the Alaska community. We are about Alaska, we care about the youth in Alaska, and we’re trying to improve the quality of life for young Alaskans.”

He says that the group formed about a year ago, and since that formation he’s seen a lot of progress. “We’ve collected a tremendous amount of data to ensure that where we’re deploying resources is actually going to make a difference in the students’ lives,” Bilbao says. “Sometimes we tend to do our very best to help students, and it’s important to make sure that we can verify that what we’re doing is translating into measurable results.”

Bilbao says that in addition to measurable data, the team makes sure to go back to teachers and faculty in the Anchorage School District to see if their anecdotal experience contradicts or reinforces what the data is showing.

He, too, is impressed with how the community is rallying around the 90% by 2020 movement. “I’m impressed with the commitment of the individuals, not just in the leadership group, but the individuals that, day in and day out, are working on this. It is really inspiring to see Alaskans come together all fully committed to helping the next generation of Alaskans find opportunity. It is remarkable the way that it’s being done with such professionalism and such a love for Alaska.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.

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