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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