Feeling the pain: Employers respond to the soft skills deficit

The soft skills deficit

Five years ago, while teaching full-time as an English instructor at a community college, I became painfully aware of my students’ lack of soft skills. When I walked into class, I greeted my students. Many times, only a few would respond. The rest stared blankly at their smartphones. When I passed students on campus, I noticed similar behavior. Lots of heads in phones. Lots of headphones on. Lots of blank, sad faces. When students chose to engage in conversation, they often seemed awkward and unsure about what to say and how to interact.

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At first, I assumed they simply lacked strong communication skills. Since I taught English Comp and Oral Communication, I made it my mission to educate and re-mediate. I tried. But I couldn’t help students who didn’t register for my courses. And I also couldn’t force feed unwilling mouths (or brains).

That was 2014. There was something in the air… it was a real turning point in the way I viewed my students. Why?

The role of technology

At first I assumed my own perception had simply changed, or I’d just gained new awareness. But statistics prove it wasn’t my perception after all. Pew Research data from 2014-15 cites that Gen Z respondents claimed to use their smartphones “several times a day,” while VisionCritical research shows that Gen Z respondents in 2015 spent an average of 15.4 hours per week on their smartphones and another 10.6 hours on their laptops. And if you want to really dig into learning about the soft skills gap, pick up a copy of Bruce Tulgan’s fantastic book on this topic (I’m a huge fan).

As employers and educators, we are starting to feel the effects of Gen Z’s addiction to digital devices and internet access. In the end, digital natives grow up and become candidates for employment. And guess who’s left to deal with the great chasm between the ideal candidate profile, which features strong soft skills (which we all need to work well with others), and the reality of today’s average candidate? The employer. YOU.

What are you going to do about it?

I hope you’re feeling the pain as you read this. I’m not trying to be mean. But I know this to be true–most of us simply won’t take action and make changes until we feel pain or desperation. And most of us won’t spend money on training until we notice negative effects in the workplace.

For years, researchers (ahem… like me) have shared statistics, information, and tips about soft skills training, the soft skills gap, and the need for awareness about this upcoming epidemic. Unfortunately, most employers and educators didn’t take action. Developing training programs takes time, costs money, and can feel incredibly frustrating. Why should you have to pay for training? Isn’t it the university’s problem or failure? Maybe. Why should the university have to deal with it? Isn’t it the high school’s fault or failure? Maybe. Why should the high school have to handle it? Shouldn’t the parents do a better job? Probably.

Choices and actions

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When we stop pointing fingers, we’ll ultimately realize we’re left with two choices:

1. Continue ignoring the problem. This will get us into a greater bind, lead to organizational chaos, and cause our businesses to lose more money and become less productive.

2. Accept reality. We’re stuck with the problem, so let’s search for solutions.

Implement mentoring programs. Reevaluate your recruiting and hiring process. Take a hard look at your onboarding process. Train your trainers to teach soft skills, and if you have no full-time trainers, hire me to train your hiring managers to teach soft skills or to directly train entry-level employees or coach selected struggling employees.

There are solutions. And as with most situations in life, we become ready to take action when the fear of moving forward becomes less intimidating than the misery of our current situation.

I am here when you’re ready to move.

Contact me to discuss soft skills training, executive coaching, and other solutions.

 

Why manners matter

Have you ever met someone who made a terrible first impression? Chances are, this person practiced manners poorly and lacked communication skills. He may not have had a firm handshake. Maybe he avoided eye contact with you (or worse yet, ignored you while interacting with others). Perhaps the person was attempting to sell you something yet failed because he was so over-the-top, aggressive, and obviously only interested in earning your business rather than getting to know you as an individual.

Manners matter. If you don’t think so, read up on the importance of soft skills. Manners matter to employers; they ought to matter to you, too, if you’re searching for a job or hope to earn a promotion at any point in your lifetime.

Here are five outcomes of practicing good manners. Consider these outcomes proof that manners matter.

If the video is not playing or displaying properly click here.

 

  • You make a great first impression.

We’re all prone to interpret others’ behavior and make a judgment call within the first 20-30 seconds of meeting people. It all goes back to the primacy effect and negativity bias. When you meet someone new, and the person makes a poor first impression, it sticks with you—often permanently, even if the person’s future behavior is completely different (and better) than the behavior he exhibited when you initially met.

This means you need to make a great first impression every single time you meet someone new. One tried and true way to do this is to practice great manners, proper etiquette, and strong communication skills.

  1. You stand out.

Let’s face it. People who go above and beyond to practice good manners are an endangered species. Many Gen Z students and recent grads have faced the conundrum of being kept on a tight leash as children while given unlimited virtual access to the world (and beyond). Under the thumb of ever watchful parents, afraid of tragedies, kidnappings, and accidents, many Gen Z children have been thrown electronic devices to keep them pacified since they were preschoolers. These devices introduced them to social media, video games, and false realities. Many Gen Z students and recent grads feel more comfortable communicating via devices than face-to-face as a result. The same students and grads express a desire to spend more time face-to-face with others, even though their communication skills are often lacking.

If you lack knowledge of how to practice good manners, and you know your communication skills aren’t up to par, seek help to improve these soft skills. Your ability to gain and maintain employment may depend on your willingness to develop better manners!

  1. You brand yourself well.

If you want to stand out to employers, college faculty and staff, alumni, and peers, you’ll attempt to practice great manners. When you interact positively and politely with others, you brand yourself as the kind of person people want to hire and work with.

As I discuss in the video accompanying this blog post, when you practice good manners, you brand yourself as courteous, thoughtful, attentive, kind, generous, helpful, and grateful. The people you meet will remember these great character traits and assets when they think of you. And maybe the next time they learn of a fabulous job opening, you’ll be one of the first people to come to mind.

  1. You build a strong network.

When you’re polite, courteous, thoughtful, attentive, and grateful, who wouldn’t want to hire you? Who wouldn’t want to keep in touch, connect with you on social media, interact with you in discussions, or meet with you for an informational interview? All great employers want to hire candidates who exhibit good manners and strong communication skills.

If you treat others well and make a positive first impression, you build strong, lasting relationships with other professionals, your peers, and your supervisors. Networking is all about relationships. When you practice good manners, connecting with others, building those relationships, and maintaining them is natural.

  1. You improve your self-esteem.

When you take esteemable actions, you gain self-esteem.

When you possess a sense of self-esteem and self-respect, you behave differently in the workplace, particularly in times of conflict. You can carry your head high because you know you’re doing the best job possible. When people gossip, you brush it off because no one else’s opinions define your sense of value or worth. This sort of self-esteem is a direct result of your actions. If you’re doing the next right thing each day at work, and you treat everyone politely and courteously, you can feel calm, comfortable, and proud of the work you’re doing.

At the end of the day, the way you treat others speaks volumes about how you feel about yourself.

If you recognize that practicing good manners and interacting with others positively is a challenge for you, reach out to me for help with soft skills coaching.

How to own your career journey and keep peace with your helicopter parents, too

I spoke to an incredibly bright, hard-working, promising senior in college yesterday. She told me about her summer internship with a major corporation in northwest Arkansas. She seemed excited about the possibilities of applying for graduate school and working full-time after graduation, too. With a solid GPA, plenty of leadership experience in athletics and extracurricular activities, and excellent soft skills, this girl will not have difficulty landing jobs. She’s top talent.

graduation-2276495_1280Whether you’re a college student who has it all together or not, senior year is still an exciting time full of promise if you’re completing graduation requirements and embarking on the next steps in your career journey.

One thing can really slow you down, generate drama and confusion, and inhibit your ability to make clear, strong decisions about your career, whether you’re top talent or not. And that’s a helicopter parent who refuses to stop hovering and insists on interfering in your career process.

Many helicopter parents recognize their children’s lack of soft skills—communication skills included–and inability to make decisions quickly, clearly, or easily. They want to help their children (soon-to-be adults), particularly when it’s time to choose a career path. Our world is evolving, in large part due to the role of technology, and many parents understand this and feel antsy about it. They want to help their children select a career path which provides stability, great earning potential, and solid benefits.

If you have a helicopter parent, it might not make you feel better to hear that your parents have your best intentions in mind. You probably don’t want your parents’ input regarding your career choices, the job application process, or your resume. Even if you love your parents, you may not love your parents’ opinions and steady stream of advice. You just want to own your own career process, whether you make perfect decisions or not.

Brandi Britton OfficeTeam District President
Brandi Britton, District President for OfficeTeam

Brandi Britton, OfficeTeam District President, advises college students to strike a balance when dealing with parents and to avoid shutting them out of the process completely. “It’s perfectly fine to talk through potential job opportunities with your parents. Since they have more experience, they may bring up factors you hadn’t considered.”

Britton also points out the importance of utilizing parents as valuable points of contact when networking. “Family members and others in your network can alert you to job opportunities and help set up introductory meetings with employers through connections. After all, networking still can’t be beat as a top way to get a job,” Britton notes.

Mike Caldwell, Director of Business Careers and Employer Development at William & Mary, suggests keeping parents informed but retaining ownership of the job search process. He offers three tips for college students.

Mike Caldwell
Mike Caldwell, Director of Business Careers and Employer Development at William & Mary

“1.  Inform your parents of the progress in your job search and what you’ve done to prepare. E.g. ‘I recently met with a career coach/advisor who helped me update my resume and structure my search process.’  Parents may assume you need help getting started if you don’t let them know!

2.  Ask your parents to help in specific areas which may be beneficial to your search. E.g. ‘I could really use additional networking contacts in XYZ field. Do you happen to know anyone who might be able to help?’ Your parents may have not written a resume in several years, but they may have great networking leads.

3.  For company selection, ask for input, but realize that your parents may focus on employers who are familiar or have existing name recognition. When discussing your selection process, it may be helpful to let them know a bit about the company or organization.”

Britton also reminds college students that asking parents for assistance on interviews and resumes is fine but cautions students about allowing parents to become overly involved. “Your parents can help you practice for interviews by posing questions that’ll likely be asked. Get their constructive feedback after mock interviews – how were your responses and delivery? Any parental involvement in the job search should be behind the scenes, such as using them as a second set of eyes for materials. Have your parents review your resume and cover letter for typos and to ensure you’ve highlighted key information.”

Ultimately, college students, particularly seniors, must strike out on their own and forge their own career paths. Not all career decisions will please your parents. That’s okay. We all make our own choices since we’re the ones living with the outcomes and consequences of those choices. Today’s college students have a wealth of resources available to them via career services, too. There’s no excuse for making uninformed career decisions, for not having a resume upon graduation, or for being unprepared for a job interview. Students should take full advantage of the career services office on campus, which ought to provide assistance with all this and more.

With the help of career services, faculty members, advisors, and yes—even parents and other family members—you’ll find that landing your first entry-level job after graduation and making career decisions probably isn’t as overwhelming as you thought it would be.

If you reach out to career services and don’t receive the help you were hoping to find, feel free to contact me for resume writing assistance, career development coaching, interview preparation tips, and more.

 

Helping, not hovering: Career assistance advice for parents of Gen Z students & recent grads

mom and sonDo you cringe when hearing the term “helicopter parents?” Nobody wants to be that parent—hovering over her child, offering unsolicited advice, attempting to thwart minor failures or skinned knees, and purchasing countless expensive gadgets and devices (because saying no is really hard!). But let’s face it. We’re all guilty of this occasionally–hovering, enabling, and causing  problematic behavior so prevalent in Generation Z students and recent grads.

Many experts in academics, career services, career coaching, and talent acquisition agree that by the time many Gen Z students graduate from college, they are simply not equipped with a strong set of soft skills. They’re often not confident about entering the workforce of today and contributing strongly to employers. Or worse, they’re overly confident.

Rather than spend time pointing the finger at our co-parents, blaming our school systems or higher education programs, or shaking our heads while gazing hopelessly at our own children and shrugging our shoulders, it makes more sense to ask ourselves that age-old question: “What’s my part in this problem? And how can I help ensure that my child is well-prepared for the world of work so that she finds a great job (and retains it) after graduating?”

cindy folmerCindy Folmer, Senior Human Resources Manager at L’Oréal USA, manages, coaches, and trains interns and entry-level employees daily. L’Oréal USA hires over 100 interns each summer. The company offers many of them the opportunity to join the Management Development Program. The program cultivates managers in distribution centers, manufacturing facilities, corporate headquarters, and other locations.

Folmer understands firsthand the challenges facing employers today in working with Gen Z college students and recent grads. “Proper manners, etiquette, ability to engage, and patience are all areas I see as challenges facing recent grads in the workplace. There are attitudes and behaviors, at times, that indicate those just entering the workforce believe they don’t have to put in the effort their parents did to move ahead as quickly. The challenge for employers is to engage this group so they are willing to learn and stay where they are in order to bring value to an organization. We’re committed to meeting this challenge at L’Oréal.” Folmer asserts.

What can parents do to prevent their children from developing attitudes like this to begin with? How can parents help their children develop strong soft skills?

  • Help children develop soft skills by encouraging the soft skill itself rather than by scolding the child for exhibiting its negative opposite. For example, if your child constantly procrastinates and never turns in homework on time, praise him when he turns it in on time. Visit with his teachers to open lines of communication; if you know when he’s submitting work on time, you can more easily encourage him. When he saunters downstairs one minute before it’s time to leave, express gratitude that he’s dressed and ready to go rather than making a snide comment about the way he fixed his hair (or didn’t brush his teeth).
  • Consider a technology-free zone in your home, a tech-free vacation, or a tech-free hour as a family. Model this behavior as a parent. If your child sees you with your nose in your phone, she’s not going to be inclined to put hers away. When you eat dinner—whether at a restaurant or at home—why not toss all your cell phones in a basket and engage in face-to-face conversation? This is a great way to encourage communication skills.
  • Teach children the art of waiting. Although we definitely need to stay ahead in the area of technology, we’ve made it easy for our children to get what they want when they want it. For instance, if they want to watch a specific television show they missed, we can jump onto In Demand,” suggests Folmer.
  • Encourage your children to find suitable career mentors and to explore their career goals early in life. This doesn’t require an extensive, formal assessment. Even elementary students can create vision boards and enjoy job shadowing and site visits. Most professionals absolutely love sharing about what they do, and chances are, your own friends and family members work in various career fields. Supervise this process to ensure your child’s safety, but don’t dictate which career fields your child chooses to explore, or you’ll take the fun out of it.
  • “Encourage them to absorb the pleasure of finishing something instead of jumping to the next activity. Give them something to do that will take time, such as learning a new sport, one they don’t really want to do. On the job, there will be tasks we don’t want to do; we have to do them, though. Then take a look back and talk through lessons learned, challenges overcome, and the excitement of success of each of these,” Folmer notes.

There are countless ways to help children learn soft skills and become confident in themselves. This confidence helps students, upon graduation, become candidates who are sought after by employers.

What if your child is struggling in his job search? How can you help? And should you help?

6950093_orig“College is a time for exploration, to learn, and to show that an individual can do things on their own,” said Matt Krumrie, a professional resume writer and career adviser who works with entry-level job seekers seeking that first job out of college. “Recent college grads should ask their parents for advice – but that’s it. They shouldn’t ask them to come to interviews – that really has happened – or expect them to lead their job search, or mention what they tell them in an interview.”

“Employers want to hire people who can think on their own, make decisions, and show they can get a job done without relying on someone else to always guide them,” Krumrie goes on to say. “When parents hover, or overstep boundaries in the job search, employers notice, and that hurts the job seeker. They wonder how much this will continue if hired, and in reality, it impacts hiring decisions. Once students graduates, it’s time to spread their wings, and show they are their own person ready to make an impact – without relying on mom and dad to lead them.”

Folmer agrees. “It’s very important at the stage of applications for parents to give their kids the opportunity to go it alone. I’ve seen too many kids come into the workplace with no idea how to complete an application. They also struggle with completing paperwork or making decisions. Be supportive, talk things out, and give them the tools necessary to go to the next level of their life.”

Each parent needs to decide the appropriate level of involvement with her own child. Whether you pay for career coaching for your child, encourage your child’s educational institution to offer soft skills training, send a career-related article to her, or offer no career advice and simply love her, the fact you took time to read this article means you’re a loving parent trying to do your best to help her—and she will be just fine in the end, no matter which path she chooses.

Contact me to discuss soft skills training programs, presentations, and opportunities for partnership with your child’s educational institution.

Career mentors: Why relationship matters

People who know me well—both personally and professionally—know I have established mentors in various areas of my life. I don’t hide this fact from anyone. I’m thankful for the guidance my mentors have selflessly offered me over the years, and I could never have navigated life’s changes, both positive and negative, without their encouragement and leadership. I am rather fond of my mentors and have even written about them on both my personal blog and for College Recruiter.

Samantha Hartley
Samantha Hartley, my career mentor

I’m the first to admit that when it comes to mentorship, I’m biased. Because mentorship has worked so well for me, I totally believe every new professional should seek out both workplace mentors (these often change and are temporary) and a long-term career mentor.

I recently came across an article by Millennial expert Lindsey Pollak about new approaches to mentoring. It suggests that due to the nature of today’s workplace—which constantly evolves at a rather rapid pace—it might be helpful to consider letting go of the idea of having a long-term singular mentor.

While Pollak’s article suggests some good approaches to mentoring which I’m not opposed to as add-ons to traditional mentoring, I do not think these approaches—such as having a group of great people to call upon for advice, or simply emailing someone with a question one time rather than having a true long-term mentor—can stand in the place of having a long-term career mentor.

Why? I’ll explain. Let me first state that there’s nothing wrong with professional networking or collaboration. I’m an advocate of these practices and encourage career coaching clients to do these things.

I believe the activities Pollak suggests fall under the umbrella of professional networking and collaboration. I have a group of professionals in my field (and related fields) I call upon occasionally. I ask them questions, send them work to critique if they have time, and ask them to serve as references. I even ask them to analyze my strengths and weaknesses and help me develop myself professionally. This group serves as a vital force in my professional realm. Pollak also mentions reverse mentoring; as a faculty member, I can appreciate this term. I have often asked college students for help when brainstorming, particularly for ideas for titles and ideas for presentations which will engage college students.

But what’s missing from the picture if you rely on group Skype calls, mass emails or texts, or random messages sent when you need to bounce an idea off someone younger is relationship.

Mentorship is about relationship.

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Photo by Jake Pitts

How can you guide me if you do not know me?

I have served as a mentor to multiple women. The time commitment varies, but regardless, mentoring is a commitment, and it’s not one to take lightly. You’re investing in someone’s life. The irony is you’re probably benefiting just as much as the person you’re mentoring (at least this proven true for me).

And when someone is mentoring you, you shouldn’t blow it off either. They are literally choosing you over everything and everyone else in their life for the hours you spend together. I’ve had the same career mentor for about eight years. How many hours of her life has she invested in me?

I cannot replace her with a panel of advisors, a group of college students, or a few people I text randomly, no matter how smart or savvy all these people might be. None of these people have spent hours with me over the past eight years. They do not understand why I’ve made career changes. They don’t know my educational background and didn’t encourage me to create my vision card, which has helped me make career decisions for eight years and counting.

You see, my career mentor was the first person—the very first person—with whom I shared my secret idea about starting my own career coaching business. Why? Because we have a real relationship. I trust her. She believes in me, and I know that. She doesn’t fill me with fluffy sentiments, but she doesn’t shoot down my dreams either.

Is the world we live in fast-paced and constantly evolving? Certainly. We’re more likely to rely on technology to communicate and less likely to engage in real conversations with people. Reach out to find a long-term career mentor; force yourself to engage in genuine human interaction. Keep your soft skills fresh. In this fast-paced world, Millennials and Gen Z employees are certainly more likely to change jobs more often than their workplace predecessors. This is even more reason to find not only workplace mentors but also a career mentor–a mentor who will stick with you from job to job, company to company, through thick and thin.

How do you go about finding an awesome career mentor like mine?

You don’t just approach someone fabulous and ask him to mentor you. That’s crazy—usually.

This is when traditional networking skills come in handy! Reach out to your potential mentor through social media. Connect online. Make thoughtful comments on her posts. Do this for a time until you feel comfortable sending a message inviting her to meet you for coffee or lunch. Ask for an informational interview. Be honest and let her know you are interested in hearing her career story (how she found success in her line of work).

If you need help navigating the networking waters and don’t even know where to start, contact me. That’s what I’m here for.

I hope all of you find a way to take full advantage of every possible solution out there. Ask for ideas on discussion boards, attend professional networking events and gain insight from groups of professionals, and network like crazy.

Don’t fall into the trap of playing lone wolf (or lone superstar). It’s easy to believe you’ve got it all together and don’t need or can’t benefit from someone investing in your life on a long-term basis. It’s also easy to convince yourself no one has the time to hear your story or offer you guidance.

They do. You’re worth it.