Remote learning during the pandemic left students short of basic skills. Now companies are trying
to teach them on the job.

By Douglas Belkin, Ben Chapman andBen Kesling

Roman Devengenzo was consulting for a robotics company in Silicon Valley last fall when he asked a
newly minted mechanical engineer to design a small aluminum part that could be fabricated on a
lathe—a skill normally mastered in the first or second year of college.

“How do I do that?” asked the young man.

So Devengenzo, an engineer who has built technology for NASA and Google, and who charges consulting
clients a minimum of $300 an hour, spent the next three hours teaching Lathework 101. “You learn by
doing,” he said. “These kids in school during the pandemic, all they’ve done is work on computers.”

The knock-on effect of years of remote learning during the pandemic is gumming up workplaces around
the country. It is one reason professional service jobs are going unfilled and goods aren’t making
it to market. It also helps explain why national productivity has fallen for the past five
quarters, the longest contraction since at least 1948, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

The shortcomings run the gamut from general knowledge, including how to make change at a register,
to soft skills such as working with others. Employers are spending more time and resources
searching for candidates and often lowering
expectations when they hire. Then they are spending millions to fix new employees’
lack of basic skills.

Talent First, a business-led workforce-development organization in Grand Rapids, Mich., is
encouraging employers to stop trying to hire based on skill. Instead, hiring managers should look
for a willingness to learn, said President Kevin Stotts.

“Employers are saying, ‘We’re just trying to find some people who could fog the mirror,’ ” Stotts
Since 2020, when the pandemic began and remote learning moved students out of schools and into
virtual classrooms, the pass rates on national certifications andassessment exams taken by engineers,
office workers, soldiers and nurses have all fallen.

Among the approximately 40,000 candidates taking the Fundamentals of Engineering exam for work as
professional engineers, scores fell by about 10% during the pandemic, said David Cox, CEO of the
National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying.
That means fewer engineers on the job and a lower degree of competency among those who make it, he

The sharpest declines in scores came on questions measuring the most specialized knowledge.
Structural engineers failed to answer questions about the use of trusses in the construction of
bridges and roadways, Cox said.
“These are areas that are very much involved in public safety,” he said.
Students in elementary and middle schools across the nation fell behind by an average of about four
months during the pandemic after classes switched to remote learning in 2019 and stayed that way in
some cases through 2021.

On national standardized tests, the scores of fourth- and eighth-graders fell to 30-year lows.
Students who were in high-school and college when Covid-19 hit and are now entering the workforce
didn’t fare much better. Despite lowered standards at many schools during the pandemic, high-school
graduation rates fell. Scores for college admissions exams dropped to the lowest level in three

Janet Godwin, chief executive of ACT, the nonprofit organization which administers the college
admission test of the same name, said more high-school graduates today lack the fundamental
academic skills needed for college and the workplace, with low-performing students facing the
steepest declines.
























In what ways have people in your workplace needed extra support and skill-building since the
pandemic? Join the conversation below.
In Covid-19’s aftermath, many college professors restructured curricula for students who lack basic
study skills.

“Reading, writing and critical-thinking skills are not the same as they were in the past,” said
Mike Altman, a religion professor at the University of Alabama who said he has narrowed his
curriculum to give his students more time to master basics.
During the pandemic more than 100,000 nurses left the field, the largest decline in four decades of
available data, a study in the journal Health Affairs showed. That has placed tremendous strain on
hospitals and increased demands on programs to graduate more nurses. But students taking entrance
exams to study nursing are scoring an average of about 5 percentage points lower than before the
pandemic, limiting the number of students eligible to enroll in nursing programs. YOIKE
More students who do enroll struggle to earn passing grades, said Patty Knecht, Vice President of
Ascend Learning Healthcare, a private company which helps train medical professionals. And even if
they do graduate, more are struggling to pass a certification exam. By then, they may already be on
the payroll but unable to work. The delays cost hospitals an average of $42,000 per student who
fails the certification exam, said Knecht.
Last year, Ivy Tech Community College, the largest nursing program in Indiana, embedded tutors in
classrooms to assist lagging students with skills they should have mastered in high school. Some of
the most basic included the math necessary to figure out correct dosages for medicine.
Joseph Mulumba, who is about to start his sophomore year in the Ivy Tech nursing program, was a
high-school sophomore in Indiana when the pandemic arrived. His school was remote for a year.
“I feel like I would have learned a lot more if not for the pandemic,” Mulumba said. “When I got
here I realized I wasn’t ready for nursing school. I realized I didn’t know how to study.”
Jerrica Moses, national recruitment manager for Senture, a London, Ky.-based call- center company,
says new workers have problems with soft skills, such as an inability to deal with frustration.
Senture, which employs about 4,200 customer- service representatives, has adopted a new set of
tests to determine which prospective employees will be able to keep their cool under stress from
angry or rude callers.
“Candidates who wash out respond by explaining how aggravated they get with the callers and then
focus on the stress,” said Moses. Most of the people who struggle are under 25 years old, she

In Grand Rapids, managers at the John Ball Zoo are coaching seasonal workers in their teens and
early 20s on basics such as why it’s important to look visitors in the eye, and how to make change
at a cash register.
They are also trying to instill a work ethic in their employees that includes taking some
initiative, getting off their phones and engaging with visitors, said Laura Davis, the director of
strategy and organizational development at the zoo. Her young
employees haven’t been held accountable for things like finishing homework assignments, and Davis
believes that has led to a decline in motivation.
“They’re not looking to be productive,” Davis said. “If they’re not told what to do, if someone
isn’t managing every second and keeping them busy, their inclination is not to self identify what
they can do—it’s to do nothing.”
The pandemic arrived when Ivan Schury was in the eighth grade. Now 17 years old and a supervisor in
the zoo’s kitchen, he said the isolation he and his peers experienced over the next few years have
left many distracted and disengaged.
Last week a teenager working the fry station kept wandering off. “He just kept walking away to talk
to his friends at the counter,” Schury said. “I spend a lot of time making sure people stay on
Charity Fields, age 19, stands inside the gift shop of the John Ball Zoo. PHOTO: STEVE KOSS FOR THE
Charity Fields, 19 years old, works in the gift shop and says she is frequently surprised by the
lack of motivation of her younger co-workers. A few days ago a 16- year-old fellow sales associate
sat in a chair reading a book while customers shopped.
“I told her we weren’t really supposed to do that,” Fields said. The girl got up, stood
near the cash register, leaned on the counter and continued to read.
The problem extends to the U.S. military, exacerbating pressures the services face from poor
Army recruits aren’t communicating within their squads as well as they did before the pandemic,
instructors say. Scores on recruiting exams fell 9% since the pandemic and prompted the Army to
create a new testing boot camp to help recruits pass, a requirement for gaining admission to the
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth believes a lot of the struggles are tied into isolation that took
root when students learned remotely during the pandemic.

“So many young people spent two years in relative isolation and not doing a lot of group projects,”
she said.
Young workers’ struggles have become vividly apparent to Criteria Corp, a Los Angeles company that
administers about 10 million assessments a year to evaluate prospective employees.
Results for test takers overall have held steady with a notable decline in the scores of men
between 18 and 24 and usually with a high-school education, said Josh Millet, co-founder and CEO of
the company.
The company’s Criteria Basic Skills Test measures reading comprehension, verbal skills and
numeracy. Companies use it to hire for positions such as administrative assistants,
customer-service representatives, medical assistants, insurance salespeople and bank tellers.














Which of the following sentences contains an error?

A. Halfway there, they ran out of fuel.

B. They began practice their piano duet.

C. This book is about sea creatures.

D. His business partner agreed to meet with him.

Choose the word that completes the sentence correctly.

Denise thought working with a reporter would be exciting, but she had answered the same question
several times and was beginning to find the interview .

A. unique

B. repugnant

C. exhilarating

D. tedious

E. satisfying

Source: Criteria Basic Skills Test
See more…
Verbal scores for men under 25 declined by 11 percentage points over the three years of the
pandemic. Scores for women were less dramatically affected. The biggest dips among men were
registered in communication skills, reading comprehension, grammar, spelling and attention to
detail, said Millet.
“Our customers consistently tell us that finding high-quality candidates is the single greatest
challenge to the successful execution of their talent strategies, and it seems that diminished
educational outcomes may exacerbate that challenge,” Millet said.
Cindy Neal, owner of Express Employment Professionals in Peoria, Ill., places about 1,500 people in
jobs every year. Since the pandemic, she has seen sharp declines in the behavior of job applicants
as well as their performance on employment exams.
The company has long offered courses for people to gain new skills such as QuickBooks. This spring
they added new courses to help prospective workers with soft skills. Some of the chapters taught
include taking initiative, personal productivity, cellphone etiquette, workplace hygiene, dressing
appropriately for work and handling conflict with co-workers.
“This stuff used to be taught in schools,” Neal said. “Now people have to be told not to bring
their kids to work.”
Results on the 15-minute employment exam the company administers to clients when they walk in the
door are also declining.
Tasks on the quiz include recognizing misspellings in words like “availability,”
“repetition” and “privilege,” and math questions such as: “If you were asked to load 225 boxes onto
a truck and the boxes are crated, with each crate containing nine boxes, how many crates would you
need to load?”
The scores in math and spelling are the worst she’s seen in 30 years, she said,
adding, “I’m really concerned by the product that’s coming out of the school system