Ask virtually any business owner about finding good employees, and they will tell you: it’s tough out there. One of the biggest challenges, they say, is that today’s young workers lack basic skills like communication, problem-solving and critical thinking.

In fact, American businesses have indicated they believe only half of high school students are equipped with the most important workplace skills, such as oral and written communication, critical thinking and problem solving. It’s not that students don’t want to have those skills; it’s because they don’t know where or how to acquire them.

With a mission to inspire and prepare young people to succeed in a global economy, Junior Achievement is one local organization addressing the issue—partnering adults in the business world with schools and with the students who are preparing for careers.

Their workforce readiness program is offered directly in participating schools and taught by volunteer business role models. In addition to teaching students how to explore career opportunities and get a job, it teaches them how to thrive in one. It helps students make the connection between what they learn in school and how it applies to the world of work, and it helps them better understand the importance of school as a means to becoming successful adults.

“Business role models can bring their life and work experience to the classroom allowing our students to learn about careers, while at the same time reinforcing our curriculum,” said Principal Jennifer Butzler of Cashton High School/Middle School, schools that began partnering with JA last spring.

“Learning from professionals in the field enhances and reinforces the importance of soft skills we strive to teach, such as punctuality, professionalism, character, integrity, grit and resilience.”

Research shows the program works. A study published last year showed that 93 percent of JA alumni have a high school diploma or GED, compared with 88 percent for the general population. They’re also 30 percent more likely to have a college degree and 67 percent more likely to have an advanced degree.

More locally, JA conducted pre- and post-testing around its soft skills curriculum, measuring understanding of the 4 Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity), problem-solving ability and managing conflict in the workplace. On the pre-test, students scored, on average, 52 percent. The average post-test score was 95 percent.

“The workforce readiness program is a win for everyone,” said Chris Walters, president and CEO of DBS Group and chair of the JA Coulee Region board of directors. “Volunteers get an opportunity to network with other business people and teachers in their community while also exposing their organizations to the youth in the region who will join the business community in coming years.”

Other businesses agree. In fact, 210 local organizations sponsor and/or volunteer professionals support Coulee Region JA. Together with 32 schools, JA currently reaches 3,700 students in the region.

Gundersen Health System is among the organizations supporting and volunteering with JA curriculum. Mason Quackenbush, director of HR Business Systems is in his ninth year of volunteering with JA.

“Our JA classes are taught at all levels, and having exposure to a business person is great for any student,” Quackenbush said. “Our teachers do a great job, but having volunteers that are members of the business community partner with them can take a concept and make it real for many of these students. I see many of the students who have gone through my classes after they graduate and the principles and concepts clearly resonated with them.”

Susan Peterson is the Coulee Region District director of Junior Achievement of Wisconsin.

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