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BETTER WORK FORCE EXPECTED FROM NEW ACADEMIC STANDARDS

Businesses across the state remain concerned that many high school graduates lack basic skills, but a new survey finds that most employers think tough new academic standards will lead to a better prepared work force.

The Business Council of New York State surveyed members this summer and found that 84 percent of the respondents think that the new standards advanced by the Board of Regents will better prepare students for the job market.

More than 86 percent of the respondents urged state officials to stand behind the new standards, even if it results in more diplomas being delayed and more students being forced to repeat courses.

The survey was taken in July and August and involved 242 companies from different parts of the state. The results underscored employers' concern about basic skills that high school graduates possess. Most respondents gave relatively low marks to students' reading, writing, listening, speaking and math skills.

The survey also found that about 42 percent of the employers think high school students and recent graduates have poor work ethics based on attributes such as promptness, attendance and customer service.

About 79 percent of the respondents also gave students either poor or fair grades for their basic understanding of business and the economy. "Concerns about the skills gap are ubiquitous. They hit all sectors and involve all parts of the state," said Matthew Maguire, director of communications for the Business Council.

But he said there are some optimistic signs on the horizon, including the tougher state academic standards. This year, high school seniors will have to score a 55 or better on a Regents English exam to get a high school diploma. Similar standards for math, American history, global studies and science will be phased in a year at a time. By the year 2003, seniors will have to pass all five tests to graduate.

Maguire said that while most employers surveyed expect the standards to make future graduates more productive in the work force, some remain worried about the deemphasis of vocational skills training in high schools.

"We hear a lot of our members saying that there must also be more of a focus on preparing students for work in the trades," said Maguire, who represents an advocacy group with more than 5,000 members.

Maguire added that the state's decision to invest $34 million in employer-driven job training initiatives bodes well for the future. Similar programs have been launched in Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina and they give employers flexibility in designing and delivering programs that train new and existing workers.

"New York State has traditionally spent a lot of money on worker training, but those efforts have been largely unfocused and uncoordinated," Maguire said.

Concerns about the so-called "skills gap" in the labor pool were also documented in a recent survey prepared for the Business Council by Compdata Surveys of Kansas City. Small, large and medium-sized companies from all parts of the state and from all types of businesses except for agriculture and retail were questioned. Theresa Worman, client relations manager for Compdata Surveys, said a growing number of businesses are facing difficulties recruiting and retaining qualified workers.

"With unemployment at sustained low levels and turnover rates reaching new highs, employees have more control over their destiny," Ms. Worman said.

She added more employers are offering signing bonuses, longevity bonuses, higher starting salaries and improved vacation benefits in an effort to enhance recruitment and retention efforts.

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