I gave an exam last week, and one student showed up 25 minutes late. When the hour ended and I collected the papers, he looked up from his seat, cast a pitiable glance and mumbled:
"Please, I got here late. May I have another 20 minutes?"
I shook my head and said, "Can't do that."
His request echoed in my head all the way back to my office. Where in the world did he get the idea that an exam doesn't begin and end at a set time?
Employers call it an "employability skill" - work ethic, timeliness, attendance and so on - and they deal with it every day.
Whenever the National Association of Manufacturers administers its "Skills Gap" surveys to members, failings in this area are as likely to be cited as complaints about inadequate technical and verbal skills.
In 2001 and 2005, the association's members rated employability skills as a crushing deficiency in their workforce, and more respondents urged schools to instill better behavior than did those who demanded more training in reading and math.
Even after the 2008 financial crisis, poor conduct remains a top complaint. In the 2011 survey, 40 percent of employers cited "inadequate basic employability skills" as a reason for why they can't hire and keep workers.
Employability skills aren't only a blue-collar failing, as shown by the "Professionalism in the Workplace" survey from York College of Pennsylvania released earlier this year. The college's project asked 401 human-resource people about the professionalism of recent college graduates.
Forty-nine percent of them stated that less than half of new employees "exhibit professionalism in their first year."
More than half (53 percent) have noticed "a sense of entitlement" rising among younger workers; almost 45 percent have seen a "worsening of the work ethic," including "too casual of an attitude toward work" and "not understanding what hard work is."
Younger workers believe they can multitask and remain productive, the human resources people told the York researchers. Thirty-eight percent of respondents blamed multitasking for the lack of "focus" among younger workers.
The authors of the study explained that the younger generation "believes that it is possible to multi-task effectively" and that using social media, for example, is an efficient way to communicate.
In interviews, the applicants check their phones for texts and calls, dress inappropriately and overrate their talents.
"The sad fact is some of these persons probably do not understand what is wrong with this," the authors note.
Older workers have always complained about younger workers, of course, but there's a difference: This time they attribute the youthful flaws not to ignorance or waywardness, but to a "sense of entitlement."
We might forgive 18-year-olds fresh out of high school for lacking employability skills (the manufacturing sector hires many workers lacking undergraduate degrees). But when he or she reaches 23 and has four years of college, employers expect a white-collar worker to recognize basic norms of dress and deportment.
What happened in college, then?