Bring back the work ethic

 

Don’t try telling Bob Funk the American Dream is dead. Or selling him on the
gloomy tropes endlessly recycled this past Labor Day weekend: that wages for
working Americans are doomed to stagnate forever, that upward mobility for the
Ordinary Joe is a thing of the past, that the two-thirds of the population lacking
a bachelor’s degree are condemned to the fringes of American prosperity, and so
on.

 

Over breakfast at Manhattan’s Warwick Hotel, his cowboy hat on the seat beside
him, the man from Oklahoma makes clear he buys none of it. “My boss told me
50 years ago there’s a person for every job and a job for every person,” he says.
“That’s still true.”

 

Formally, Mr. Funk is chairman, CEO and founder of Express Employment
Professionals, one of the nation’s largest job agencies. Informally, he sees
himself as a man who makes a living by giving people hope—that is, by matching
workers looking for good jobs with employers looking for good workers. Along
the way he also served as chairman of the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank.
By and large the employers he works with are small and medium-size companies
with fewer than 250 employees. Most of the jobs Express fills are temporary
positions in offices or light industry. Since he started the firm in 1983, he says,
he’s helped find jobs for 6.5 million people.

But Mr. Funk points out that 62% of the “temporary” workers he places end up
being hired to stay on full-time. “Try before you buy,” he calls it—and says that
goes for the worker too. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world to help someone
who wants to work find a good job,” he says.

 

This experience gives Mr. Funk some definite—and timely—notions about
getting ahead in today’s America. Like everyone else, he talks about education
and skills. But what he means by these words may be a little different from how
they are used in the Harvard Business Review.

 

Start with skills. Hard skills and experience, he says, are only half the equation,
and not the important half. He shares a small brochure his company puts out
summarizing a recent survey of employers. “So many people do not realize how
important the soft skills are to unlocking job opportunity,” he says.

 

In order, the survey found the top five traits employers look for are as follows:
attitude, work ethic/integrity, communication, culture fit, critical thinking.
Drugs are a huge problem today, with many would-be employees putting
themselves out of the running when they fail drug tests. A certified truck driver
can start at $55,000 to $60,000 a year, for example, but no one’s going to hire you
if you do drugs.

 

If all this sounds old-fashioned, it is—and Mr. Funk isn’t ashamed of it. So many
people, he says, are unfamiliar with the fundamentals of work, from knowing
how to dress and showing up on time to taking direction from a boss. At a time
when employers are complaining they can’t find the people they need, Mr. Funk
says being honest and having the right attitude will help you stand out from the
pack.

 

Nor does Mr. Funk look down his nose at so-called McJobs : “Those low-paying,
entry-level jobs,” he says, “are good training for the soft skills you need for
upward mobility.” It’s also far better than falling into the trap in which people
end up losing their appetite for work because they become too comfortable with
government benefits meant to be temporary.

 

And while education is vital, Mr. Funk says the most important thing for most
people is the ability to be trained—which starts with basic competence in
reading, writing and arithmetic. Mr. Funk also says institutions such as
Oklahoma’s CareerTech, which works with local employers to train people for
jobs that actually exist in their communities, are probably a better investment
for many people than college.

 

As for Washington, instead of rewriting trade deals or pushing increases in the
minimum wage, Mr. Funk says a real pro-worker agenda would focus on
relieving the burdens on employers from laws like Dodd-Frank and ObamaCare,
which fall heavy on the small and medium-size companies he works with: “If we
could clear some of these burdens out of the way, I believe businesses would bust
open and create many more jobs.”

 

Plainly the path to the middle class for Americans lacking college degrees has
changed. No one today can expect to start in, say, a Chrysler factory at 18 and
remain till 65 with steady pay raises along the way. But Mr. Funk insists good
jobs are out there, though people may have to knock on a few more doors to find
the right one.

 

“I’ve helped a lot of people find jobs in my life,” he says. “And I’ve learned that if
you are honest, have a strong work ethic, and stay off drugs, there’s a great future
for you out there.”

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