Contrary to theories that suggest that economic need propels youths into the labor force, factors such as lower household income and parents not working substantially decrease the odds of youth participation in the labor force.
A recent book makes a compelling case, based on research conducted in high-performance firms, that employability in the current and future labor force is increasingly determined by a combination of basic academic knowledge and "soft skills," defined as "the ability to work in groups and to make effective oral and written presentations" (Murnane and Levy, 1996:9). A similar combination of academic and behavioral skills was identified by the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS)(1991) (see Box 4-1). These insights into what makes people employable are helpful, especially in contrast to the assumption—which underlies much vocational education and training—that employability is determined primarily by the possession of specific work skills. Job-specific skills remain critical in many fields, but they are both more easily learned and more quickly outmoded than are the new basic skills: To succeed at work today, most people need to acquire knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors that are quintessential middle-class virtues.
The new basic skills and most of the skills identified by SCANS are the qualities that many youngsters acquire from attending good schools; from having strong families; from participating in church, scouts, 4-H, and other community organizations; and from engaging in a disciplined manner in such activities as sports, music, and dance. Summer and after-school work experience can also contribute to the new basic skills. Having fewer opportunities for such activities, many poor and minority youngsters experience difficulty finding and keeping jobs, even if they can overcome discriminatory practices and their geographic isolation from many jobs. For example, they may be unaccustomed to schedules and supervision and may lack customer-relations skills. In some cases, they may have developed competing competencies (Walther, 1976): For example, they may have found a highly aggressive interpersonal style that is accepted in their neighborhood, but such a style is unlikely to impress job interviewers. The speech, dress, and manners that serve young people well in their homes and neighborhoods may disqualify them from desirable jobs. Thus, obtaining work experience may be more important for disadvantaged youth than for relatively advantaged youth. But that work experience must be of high quality to have the