JITE v35n2 - Addressing the Humanistic Side of Workforce Education

Volume 35, Number 2
Winter 1998

FROM THE EDITOR: In this comments piece, John Centko focuses on the pattern of interpersonal and humanistic skills that are becoming increasingly important in the emerging high skill, collaborative workforce. His thinking also addresses some of the more problematic aspects of extending education into this difficult and often sensitive area.

Addressing the Humanistic Side of Workforce Education

John Centko,
Illinois State University

To remain vital in today's competitive global market, companies need well-developed workforces. Employees must be willing to learn and possess the ability to put their knowledge to work in new and effective ways. The future of our nation and its place within the global economy depends on the development of high-performance work organizations and a highly competent workforce (SCANS, 1991). The United States and other developed countries are eliminating hundreds of thousands of low-skill jobs. These jobs are now performed with greater speed and accuracy by computer controlled automated systems, which are monitored by relatively few knowledge workers who are capable of thinking critically and solving problems (Carnevale, 1991). According to Carnevale, these "high skill" employees are critical to an organization's ability to achieve productivity and implement quality improvements. Effective employees need to have a solid foundation of basic positive worker attributes. These positive worker attributes are required of white- collar and technical personnel, not just the shop floor worker (Carnevale, Gainer, & Meltzer, 1988). Deficiencies in workplace basic skills represents a significant barrier for individuals seeking entry-level positions. To address these needs, it is important to understand what skills and abilities employers perceive as essential to the success of their employees in the workplace.

The humanistic or behavioral aspects of work, which are required to maintain a career, are seldom addressed directly in formal educational programs. In some cases, this is due to legitimate concerns about the appropriateness of teaching values in public institutions. Others suggest that extending the scope of education to include humanistic and attitudinal dimensions will further tax an already overextended curriculum. In spite of these claims, it is vitally important to note that teaching technical skills is not enough to ensure job-related success. Employees need skills that allow them to move not only vertically within a company, but horizontally throughout their careers. These skills that are needed for success are beyond the presentational scope of most traditional educational programs and are drastically needed in order to allow employees to transfer from one job classification to another with minimal additional education or training.

There is currently a need for curriculum development that instills positive worker attitudes in students and also allows them to have satisfying personal and work lives. Three behavior/attitudinal categories have emerged as requirements for successful workplace employment: human relations skills, negotiation skills, and adaptability skills. Human Relations Skills

A wide range of positive interpersonal interactions are essential to success, both on and off of the job. While technical skills remain a primary employment requirement, a lack of good interpersonal skills will ultimately erode job performance. It is critical that employees develop an understanding of how interpersonal relations affect job productivity and personal well-being. The development of interpersonal skills can be achieved by interventions specifically designed to be delivered in group settings where each participant is encouraged to develop an understanding of workplace interpersonal dynamics. While formal educational environments have not traditionally focused on these types of skills (particularly in technical areas), the educational process remains fundamentally a social enterprise. In order to be successful, students must learn skills associated with oral communications, idea clarification, negotiation, and goal setting. These are many of the same fundamental skills that are currently in demand in the workforce and which are needed to promote successful teamwork among current and future employees.

Negotiation Skills

A second critical social skill area has to do with the ability to negotiate. Negotiation skills allow employees to overcome conflict by compromising, accommodating, and collaborating with other employees and management. These skills are also necessary in order to facilitate the development of a comfortable, positive, and effective teamwork environment. Employees who are able to master these skills will be valuable in any type of work environment. Negotiation skills can be developed through self-awareness (e.g., beliefs, values, perspectives, etc.) and through developing mutual respect for co-workers and management. Skillful negotiation is needed to facilitate positive consensus building. If groups are able to make decisions collectively, conflict among employees can be minimized. As workers gain mutual respect, appreciation, and acceptance by both management and peers, there will be both individual as well as corporate success

Adaptability Skills

Adaptability will be absolutely essential in the 21st century workforce. According to Carnevale (1994), "the inherent flexibility of new technologies require high-performance organizational structures and processes that are equally flexible" (p. 5). For these new flexible systems to be successful, employees at all levels in business and industry will need to be able to function autonomously and develop the skills needed to adapt to rapidly changing technologies. All employees, throughout the organization, will need to be equipped and empowered to identify problems and make decisions that advance the mission of the organization. This can be achieved by developing problem-solving and creative thinking skills. When empowered to assume responsibility and to take the initiative, employees can become more productive, instead of waiting for management to solve their work-related problems.

These ideas are certainly not new. Many industries have instituted broad-scale organizational and institutional culture changes that will require employees with these types of humanistic and creative skills. What is badly needed are mechanisms (in the schools and at work) for facilitating positive and appropriate personal and interpersonal skill development. These represent significant and real challenges for workforce education. There is a need for sustained research that will identify which behaviors and attitudes need to be addressed as well as how and where they can be addressed.

America must change the educational systems shaping its labor force to meet the current and future circumstances. We can no longer produce 21st century knowledge workers with old and outdated school systems and curricula. As technology advances rapidly, we must advance the educational systems by developing new curriculum and teaching methods, to deliver the desired knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will yield successful and fulfilled workers. In order to accomplish these goals, we must learn how to erase (or at least blur) the artificial boundaries between the academic disciplines and the applied areas. We must find new ways of linking formal schooling with the activities of entities such as volunteer groups, service organizations, clubs, the family, and other agencies where students learn the skills and values needed to function successfully in society. It is also critical that we find ways to (a) make schooling more authentic while, at the same time, (b) facilitate more learning in the workplace. These represent significant challenges that will require fundamental changes to the ways in which education is conceived and delivered in America.

Educational reform will not be easy. It requires changes in established habits and elimination of nonessential bureaucracies. It involves a willingness to examine some basic assumptions and structures. The costs associated with reeducating educators (and teacher educators) will be high. Perhaps most difficult, it will be necessary to identify appropriate and effective ways of addressing the need for developing positive workplace attitudes and behaviors. These raise serious issues about such things as the role of the schools and education in our culture and the appropriateness (or ability) of education to influence and address attitudes and values. Through the work of the SCANS commission, Carnevale, and others, a relatively clear and coherent set of goals for workforce education have been established. What is not yet so clear is how these needs can or will be addressed.


Carnevale, A. P. (1991). America and the new economy. Washington, DC: American Society for Training and Development (ASCD), U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration.

Carnevale, A. P., Gainer, L. J., & Meltzer, A. S. (1981). Workplace basics: The skills employers want. Washington, DC: American Society for Training and Development (ASCD), U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration.

Carnevale, A. P., Porro, J. D. (1994). Quality education: School reform for the new American economy. Washington, DC: American Society for Training and Development (ASCD), U.S. Department of Education.

Reference Citation: Centko, John. Addressing the humanistic side of workforce education. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education, 35(2), 74-79.

Tracy Gilmore