With small businesses scrambling to find qualified employees, a recent national survey of employers found that young people are increasingly ill-prepared for today's workforce, lacking basic skills in communications and critical thinking.

Of 431 human resource managers polled, more than 70 percent said recently hired high school students  proved to be deficient in academic skills, such as grammar, spelling, and written communications, according to a survey released on Oct. 4 by a coalition of business research and advocacy groups, including the Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

An overwhelming majority cited problems new hires had handling such routine tasks as writing memos, letters, and other reports, the survey found.

Poor writing skills also proved to be problematic for two-year and four-year college graduates, though to a lesser extent, according to the survey's respondents.

Another 70 percent said recent high school graduates also lacked applied skills, including professionalism, a sense of work ethic, and critical thinking, which more than half described as "very important" for succeeding in the workplace, the study found. Among these skills were personal accountability, effective working habits, punctuality, working with others, and workload management.

Researchers said the findings reflect the growing frustration of employers seeking qualified workers within a tight labor market, and could have grave consequences on the competitiveness of the U.S. workforce as well as the vulnerability of the economy in the global marketplace. 
"It is clear from the report that greater communication and collaboration between the business sector and educators is critical to ensure that young people are prepared to enter the workforce of the 21st century," Richard Cavanagh, president and CEO of the Conference Board, said in a statement.

In September, just over half of the nation's small businesses hired or tried to hire at least one new employee, based on a monthly survey by the National Federation of Independent Business, a Washington-based lobby group.

Of those with positions to fill, more than 80 percent of small-business owners reported finding few or no qualified applications, with as many as 12 percent citing a lack of qualified employees as their biggest business problem -- the highest number in five years, the group said.

According to the Conference Board survey, employers said they would likely start raising the level of qualifications required for most new positions. Some 28 percent said they would stop hiring applicants with only a high school diploma within the next five years, while more than half said they would increase the number of new hires with a college degree, the survey found.

Beyond that, business leaders are also "actively engaged in efforts to address the skills gap through a variety of initiatives," said Donna Klein, president and CEO of Corporate Voices for Working Families, an business advocacy group that bridges private and public sector issues.

These initiatives include efforts to boost students' academic performance by partnering schools with businesses to provide mentoring programs, internships, job-shadowing programs, and summer job opportunities, Klein said.

Among the skills expected to be essential for businesses in the years ahead, nearly three-fourths of employers polled ranked creativity and innovation in the top five. Other sought-after skills included foreign languages, and understanding of global markets, and the economic and cultural impacts of globalization, the survey said.