Supporting Employees and Maximizing Profit: The Case for Workforce Development Focused on Self-Regulation.

Author:Kauff, Jacqueline

Low-wage workers often experience high rates of job turnover and difficulty advancing to better jobs. (1) Retention problems can contribute to employees' struggle to make ends meet, but also can have consequences for an employer's bottom line. According to a recent report by the Work Institute, 29 percent of employees, irrespective of income level, will voluntarily quit their jobs in 2018, and about 40 percent of this turnover will occur in the employees' first year of employment. (2) Such turnover comes at a tremendous cost to employers. The report notes that, "employee turnover is anticipated to hit record highs and cost U.S. companies more than $600 billion in 2018," and "will continue to affect the ability of organizations to sustain profits and grow revenues."

Workforce development efforts that enhance the capacities of low-income adults in the labor market can improve their outcomes and employers' profitability. Such efforts have traditionally focused on helping potential or new employees gain hard skills. Hard skills are "those achievements that are included on a resume, such as education, work experience, knowledge, and level of expertise." (3) A large body of evidence suggests, however, that employers are increasingly seeking employees with strong soft skills. Soft skills are "character traits, attitudes, and behaviors--rather than technical aptitude or knowledge," and they are not limited to a particular profession. (4)

Employers sometimes refer to these skills as people skills or interpersonal skills. In one large survey of hiring managers and human resources professionals more than three-quarters of respondents reported that soft skills are just as important as hard skills when evaluating a job candidate. (5) Other research suggests that "employers rate soft skills highest in importance for entry-level success in the workplace." (6) Indeed, the benefits of strong soft skills in the workplace are well documented in the literature. Benefits to employers include enhanced productivity, quality, and profit. (7) Benefits to employees are enhanced personal interactions, job performance, and career prospects. (8) In fact, soft skills are strong predictors of success in the labor market. (9)

Research has documented the soft skills that employers value most and that are correlated with success on the job. In 2014, researchers for the World Bank developed a taxonomy of soft skills that employers look for in employees by reviewing the literature on employer-demanded skills and comparing it to related literature in psychology, economics, and education. (10) Table 1 shows the percentage of survey respondents from three studies, in particular, who rated specific skills as very or extremely important to success in the workplace or indicated that they look for these skills when hiring. Some of the skills identified in the World Bank taxonomy that the surveys in these studies did not inquire about include perseverance, the ability to focus attention, and the ability to delay gratification and control impulses. Another skill featured prominently in the research as valued in the workplace is emotional intelligence. (11) Often described as the ability to understand and manage the emotions of oneself and others and thereby relate to others, emotional intelligence drives other skills such as communication, teamwork, conflict resolution, and the ability to give and receive feedback effectively. (12) Emotional intelligence has been shown to influence job success twice as much as IQ or technical skills. (13)

The soft skills that employers seek when hiring and that increase the likelihood of success on the job are akin to what psychologists and neuroscientists call self-regulation skills. Self-regulation skills are cognitive and emotional skills and personality factors that allow people to intentionally control their thoughts, emotions, and behavior. (14) A core set of foundational skills enables higher-order skills that people use to set, pursue, and achieve personal goals. Key examples of these skills are listed in Exhibit 1. Research suggests that self-regulation skills develop most rapidly in early childhood, but that they continue to develop in adulthood. (15) In fact, some suggest that these skills "are continually developed through practical application during one's approach toward everyday life and the workplace." (16) Research also suggests that self-regulation skills can be improved in adulthood through intervention and that supports can help people use their self-regulation skills optimally. (17)

Employers can provide training opportunities and mentoring to foster self-regulation skills in low-income adults in the labor market. Employers can send selected staff to training sessions to learn to train others on these skills using existing curricula (18) or hire outside trainers. Employers should not expect a one-off training course on self-regulation to be a panacea for their employees, however, and some skills may take longer to...

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