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.

 

Higher ed: Branding your campus

Recently, my family and I traveled across two states to the Gulf Coast to visit the beach. My daughter is still at that wonderful age of resisting the notion of “potty breaks.” Half an hour after a pit stop, she insisted on stopping again–immediately. We passed two exits, no buildings or signs indicating businesses in sight. As we neared the third exit near Goodman, Mississippi, I encouraged my husband to take the exit. We were in luck. Three miles after exiting, we came across Holmes Community College. We’d hit the jackpot.

I’ve worked at four colleges/universities as a director of career services, academic advisor, and English faculty member. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about institutions of higher education–or any educational institution, for that matter–it’s this: you can form a pretty accurate first impression within five minutes of walking on campus. How? By paying attention to the way people treat you. Let’s extend this to any place of business. How many times have you walked into a restaurant, physician’s office, or boutique and been almost immediately turned off by the lack of warmth? How many times have you walked in for a job interview and felt immediately welcomed and at ease because of the way people treated you in the parking lot, the lobby, and hallways? If this isn’t proof that interpersonal skills–soft skills–make or break an organization’s ability to earn business, I don’t know what is.

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Immediately after driving onto campus at Holmes Community College, people–faculty, staff, and students–waved, nodded, and verbally greeted us. When we entered the student center to find a restroom, the security guard smiled and asked if we needed help, a student opened the door for me and greeted me, and a woman walked out of an office to ask if we needed assistance all within a matter of 30 seconds. The women who worked in the bookstore were equally as friendly and helpful (and I insisted on purchasing a Holmes Bulldogs t-shirt to represent their excellent soft skills and campus brand).

Losing sight of people

Too often in higher education, we’re obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses. Bigger state-of-the-art buildings. Rad new programming ideas. Next, newer, tech. More students. I get it. It’s a business, right? We’re obsessed with the bottom line. We’re bean counting, as one of my former VP’s used to say as he shook his head sadly. We’re counting beans–and I understand why–but we ought to be careful that we don’t become obsessed with numbers. If we lose sight of people, our ability to attract and retain quality employees and students wains. If we sacrifice the quality of our human resources in order to boost the quantity of our student population, our students will ultimately suffer, too. 

And remember that first impression I was talking about, the one you feel when you walk on campus, the reflection of your campus brand? That’s not something you can fake. Students are smart. If your employees are content thanks to a positive workplace culture, your students (and potential students, their family members, potential donors, and alumni) will sense it. That becomes part of your brand. The opposite is true. If your employees are disgruntled, frustrated, and showing up simply out of obligation (or worse, to continue earning a paycheck), that is your brand.

The solution

The bottom line is this: the soft skills your employees possess translate into the vibe they emanate. That vibe becomes your campus brand.

If you want to improve your campus brand, improve your workplace culture. If you want to improve your culture, take a look at your employees’ soft skills. If you’re a higher education administrator, and you want to improve your employees’ soft skills, start by taking a look at your own. 

Ready and willing to take action to improve your campus brand by seeking soft skills solutions? Reach out to me for help.

 

 

Making the most of working with your career mentor

I’ve never regretted one minute spent listening to my career mentors. I learn so much when we meet, chatting over pancakes at Bob’s Diner or pizza in downtown Little Rock. Sure, I do some of the talking–opening up about where I’m at in my career, asking questions, and even sharing about troubling situations in the workplace in hopes my mentors will offer potential solutions. They always do because they’re brilliant women. I picked great career mentors. One owns her own business, consulting small business owners who want to market themselves and attract better clients. The other manages recruiting for a telecommunications corporation. My mentors have been where I am in many ways. They know what I’m going through, and even if they haven’t found themselves puzzled by an identical client or partner, they have likely been in similar situations.

That’s the beauty of working with a career mentor. A career mentor is a mentor you ask to guide you through your career journey–not just from point A to point B during one stretch of your career or while you strive through the most difficult mess of it. Your mentor learns all about you, and your career mentor can give you very pointed, detailed advice. Since your mentor doesn’t work with you in your workplace–unlike a workplace mentor–she doesn’t care about office politics. She only cares about seeing you succeed in the long run. She sees the big picture.

If you already have a career mentor, you’ll want to watch this video with three tips/reminders about making the most of working with your career mentor. You’ll find ways to apply this advice to the relationship you already have with your mentor. If you don’t have a career mentor, think about a few people you admire while watching the video and reading the article. Maybe by the end, you’ll have narrowed down your list.


If the video isn’t playing properly click here.

  1. Remember, your career mentor isn’t a fairy godmother (or godfather).

    Your career mentor won’t float out of the sky, pixie dust sprinkled in her hair, announcing her desire to guide you through your career (but wouldn’t that be great?!). You’re going to have to break down and ask someone to mentor you. Sometimes mentoring relationships evolve naturally. This happens in the workplace and in higher education; you might fall into a relationship with your career mentor if she’s your professor or boss. But most likely, you’ll find someone you admire who works in your dream job or similar career field. You will observe this person to ensure she exhibits character traits you admire. Then you will ask her to serve as your career mentor. Asking can be difficult, but acting against your fear of rejection is important. You potentially have so much to gain from a great career mentor.Also, we can often believe our career mentors are fairy godmothers in the sense that we place them on pedestals. We think they’re professionally perfect. But they’re definitely not, and learning from your career mentor’s failures and defects can be just as helpful as learning from your career mentor’s successes and assets.
  2. If it’s not working, make a change.

    It would be great if everyone’s career mentoring relationship lasted for a lifetime. Some do, and some don’t. If you work with a career mentor for five years, and you find yourself growing apart, accept that it may be time to seek a new career mentor. Some relationships–even professional relationships–are only meant to last for a season. We all grow, change, and develop, and as that happens, we often grow apart. Trying to force a fit doesn’t feel natural and can make a mentoring relationship very awkward. If you’re asking questions and not receiving answers which feel aligned with your values, ethics, or goals, it might be time to seek a new career mentor.
  3. Don’t expect your mentor to serve as your career coach.

    Unless your mentor works in career services, career counseling, or career coaching, your mentor will probably not feel comfortable providing you with detailed assistance with your resume, cover letter, interview preparation, branding, networking, job search assistance, or other areas of career coaching. While your mentor can certainly share her unique experiences in these areas, your mentor won’t pretend to be an expert in an area outside her realm of expertise. And she shouldn’t! If someone comes to me for personal counseling, I don’t pretend for one minute I’m licensed as a professional counselor. I immediately refer that potential client to a qualified professional.Seek your mentor’s advice and ask her to share her experience, but don’t drain her either. Remember that your mentor probably juggles work, family, and personal interests, including mentoring you (and possibly other mentees). Respect her boundaries.

    If you need help determining how to find a great career mentor, how to ask someone to mentor you, or how to seek career coaching help from a professional rather than from your mentor, reach out to me to schedule a free consultation. 

Why you need to prepare an elevator pitch

It’s virtually impossible to separate networking and branding. We work our whole lives to build a reputation (our brand), and we spend our whole lives building and maintaining relationships with others (our network). We do these things simultaneously. We can’t build a reputation without an audience—our network—and we can’t build relationships without proving to those people who we are—our brand.

Somewhere along the way, as we connect with new people who will come to know who we are, we’ll need to introduce ourselves. Most of us, if we’re unprepared, will stumble over our words when introducing ourselves and fail to mention more than our names and where we live. If we’re lucky, we might remember to mention our career field, course of study, or current job role. If we meet someone we consider impressive or important, we’ll probably feel even more nervous than usual.

I once met Alanis Morissette while traveling with other college students in China. What are the odds? I felt incredibly lucky. Since the internet wasn’t a big deal then, and social media didn’t exist, none of the Chinese citizens in the area recognized her. I introduced myself, stumbling over my words. She was gracious and asked me several questions about our cultural exchange team and experiences traveling. Looking back on that encounter years later, I realize I simply didn’t have the communication skills to pull myself together to deliver anything remotely like an elevator pitch. I’m sure if I’d attended a workshop about personal branding, branding statements, or elevator pitches I might have felt slightly less tongue-tied and more confident.

Nothing really would have ever come of meeting a celebrity, I’m sure, but it was fun and exciting. But there are often serious outcomes when we meet new employers, recruiters, colleagues, supervisors, friends of friends, and others who can connect us to great job leads and want to hire qualified employees. This is why we all need a smooth elevator pitch ready and waiting to roll off our tongues. An elevator pitch is simply a brief persuasive speech (20-30 seconds long—it takes this long to ride an elevator from the top to bottom floor without lots of stops) to introduce ourselves. In the context of your job search, your elevator pitch will “pitch” you to potential employers, colleagues, and others who may consider connecting you to great job leads. Your elevator pitch should provide basic introductory information. It should briefly explain to your new contact who you are, where you’re been, and where you’re going. But it should also explain why.

I recently led a one-hour workshop about the first steps of branding, including elevator pitches, for seniors at Southside High School in Batesville, Arkansas. I was grateful for the opportunity to visit with students and learn about their “Future Stories.” A charter school, Southside High School teachers and administration work closely with students to provide various vocational, career coaching, and higher education opportunities to students to make their future stories a reality.

During the workshop, I helped students understand how to craft an elevator pitch.

  • Keep your target audience in mind (for job seekers, it’s employers and new connections who may help them find jobs).
  • Stick to 30 seconds in length. This may require lots of practice. I have taught hundreds of college students in Oral Communications, and trust me–it just takes time to practice and perfect something which seems as simple as a 30-second spiel. Don’t beat yourself up if it takes you a long time to shorten your elevator pitch.
  • Avoid overused words, clichés, and jargon. Use terms you’re totally familiar with to ensure smooth delivery. Include keywords important to your industry, but don’t use so many keywords that an average person has difficulty weeding through unfamiliar terminology.
  • Remember the “why.” It’s great to state that you just graduated with a bachelor’s degree and are seeking employment in Rhode Island. But why? Many students mention that they’re pursuing a degree in a certain field. Why? What do you plan to do with that degree later in life? The WHY grabs your listener’s interest.

Two graduating seniors from Southside High School agreed to record their elevator pitches and share them with my readers/viewers. Thank you, Brooke and Natalie, and congratulations on graduating. I look forward to keeping in touch with you as you continue to pursue your goals.

Brooke Talley’s elevator pitch:


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Natalie Humphrey’s elevator pitch:


If the video isn’t playing properly click here.

Need help creating and delivering your own elevator pitch? Contact me for help.

Preparing for life after teaching

About 1/3 of my clients work in the field of education (K-12 or higher education); it’s a natural fit since I have 10 years of experience in higher education and have also worked with K-12 students.  Some of my clients want to transition out of teaching; others are determined to stick with education.

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Teaching is a career field most people feel passionate about–at least initially. Many educators feel exhausted after several years of managing a classroom full of students, though, and some opt to pursue a whole new career path. Some teachers retire early to pursue new careers. Other teachers transition out of teaching after only a few years of teaching; they discover that teaching wasn’t quite what they’d hoped it’d be.

 

If you’re a teacher, and you’re unsure whether you want to continue teaching, you should begin training and preparing yourself for what lies ahead… even if you’re not certain what lies ahead. Whether you renew your teaching contract this year or not, taking these three action steps will strengthen your resume, boost your confidence, and provide you with networking leverage if you search for jobs in the future.

  1. Develop one technical/hard skill in an area of interest unrelated to education.

Even if you’re sure you want to continue teaching right now, developing a technical skill unrelated to teaching will benefit you. Putting your mind to work on a topic unrelated to your students can actually help you relieve mental stress and anxiety. Taking an online course in photo editing or SEO can stretch your mind; you’ll become a well-rounded teacher, and who knows? Maybe you’ll have an opportunity to incorporate what you learn into the classroom.

If you have an inkling you may want to search for jobs outside of teaching, brainstorm about which career fields interest you. Are you considering looking for jobs in curriculum design, training, or sales? Enroll in a local public speaking course or reach out to a career coach for communication skills development assistance. Many community colleges and libraries also offer free workshops. You don’t have to invest much of your income to learn a new skill.

  1. Identify three soft skills you’d like to improve and focus on improving one at a time.

Which soft skills matter most to you personally? Which soft skills matter most within your chosen career field (education or your future field)? A little research, coupled with self-assessment to determine which soft skills you currently possess and which soft skills you currently lack, should help you determine which soft skills to focus on developing.

Create an action plan to develop one soft skill at a time. Don’t even think about working on more than one thing at a time—you’ll feel overwhelmed, and you’ll give up.

If you prefer working alone and roll your eyes when your principal mentions breaking into groups during in-service training, working on teamwork and collaboration skills might be a good idea. Collaboration is hot in the workplace now; you’ll need to convince employers—with actions, not words—that you are very comfortable working well with others. Develop your teamwork skills now, and when you begin interviewing for jobs in a few years, you won’t be grasping at straws when asked for an example of a time when you collaborated with your coworkers to solve a problem.

  1. Spend 30 minutes networking twice weekly with people outside of teaching.

In education, we often work in silos. We work in separate classrooms, teaching our own students, and sometimes—without meaning to—we don’t share information or stories or successes with one another.

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Break out of your silo, whether you’re going to transition out of teaching or not, and spend 30 minutes twice weekly networking with people outside of teaching. If you already have professional contacts online or offline, reach out to them. Schedule visits after work. Meet for coffee or iced tea and chat about summer vacation plans.

 

Do you know someone who works in a career field which has always interested you, but you don’t know every detail? Break down and call that person and ask for an informational interview. Most people love to talk about themselves and their careers. If meeting face-to-face intimidates you, start by networking online. Develop your LinkedIn and Twitter profiles. Both offer plenty of opportunities to connect with real people via professional groups and chats.

Ultimately, the worst thing you can do is teach for 5, 10, or 30 years without considering that someday you might want to transition out of teaching. We’re only human; even if we expect to work in the classroom our whole lives, sometimes a career is only for a season. And that’s okay.

Be smart and teach yourself to prepare for life beyond the classroom. Someday you’ll thank yourself.

If you need assistance finding a new teaching job or transitioning out of teaching, I’m happy to help.

Does your major really matter?

Today I presented a workshop for high school seniors about selecting a college major and career options for English majors. I provided them with a list of over 20 career options.

But most importantly, I ensured they understood this truth: which degree path you choose doesn’t matter.

I noticed many raised eyebrows at this point in the presentation, and for good reason. We’re taught all our lives to contemplate the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And later in life, during elementary and high school, we’re asked, “What are you going to study in college?” or “What are you going to major in?”

Aside from highly technical career paths, it simply doesn’t matter much which degree path you choose. Sure, it’s better to major in psychology than history if you’re interested in working as either a social worker for a private agency or for the Department of Human Services someday. Think of degree paths and majors as umbrellas. Aim to huddle under the umbrella which suits you best. If you find yourself interested in social services, pursue a degree in either criminal justice, social work, psychology, or counseling. Which one should you choose? Good grief. Just pick one. Seek wise counsel, of course, from mentors, faculty members, advisors, a career coach, career services professionals, and others, but the choice is ultimately yours.

A bachelor’s degree is a gate opener. There are very few instances when your selection of a bachelor’s degree path is going to make or break your ability to earn the right to land a job.

Even if you have worked for 20 years and want to transition into a new career field but find that your degree/major doesn’t match with your preferred line of work, don’t sweat it. Take a look at your skill set. Work with a career coach to revise your resume to highlight your skills and experience to match your preferred field. Seek volunteer or part-time experience in your preferred field.

In today’s world, employers value soft skills and experience at least as much—if not more than—they value the type of degree a candidate possesses. Hiring managers look for work experience on a resume—internships, externships, job shadowing, volunteer work, and part-time and full-time jobs. Candidates make or break the opportunity to earn interviews by their ability to write a quality resume/cover letter, to network appropriately at job fairs and during on-campus interviews, and by branding themselves online. During interviews, employers ask questions which allow candidates to showcase soft skills, including communication skills, problem-solving skills, team-building skills, and time management skills.

Today’s employers understand they’re not going to hire entry-level candidates and interns with every single qualification out of the gate. However, competition is fierce in this job market, and candidates need to showcase themselves as quick, willing learners. Employers simply don’t have time, energy, or funds to train candidates extensively.

Ultimately, just go to college. Just earn your degree. A degree is a door opener; you can always fall back on it when you find yourself unemployed and searching for work. And lastly, select a degree path you ENJOY. Life is too short to waste four or more years studying material you despise.

Need help discerning your future career path? Contact me for a free consultation.

How much is your career worth?

It’s August, and you’re probably drowning in photos posted on Instagram and Facebook of your friends and family members’ first days back at school. The days of the photos of boating, swimming, water parks, and the Grand Canyon are long gone… until next summer. Most of us can no longer take week-long summer vacations, but some might splurge on mini vacations over the weekend.

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Photo by Pixabay.com

Out of curiosity, I crunched some numbers online to determine the average cost of a mini vacation in the United States for one adult.

Concert ticket: $78.77
Dinner out: $39.40
Drinks with friends: $20
Movie and snacks: $20
Gas: $40
Adult ticket to theme park: $84
Hotel for one night: $75
Other meals: $50

Total cost: $407.17

How much did you invest this summer on your career? 

Biting the bullet and asking a career coach to help you write or edit your resume, craft an excellent cover letter, prepare for an important interview, or hone your networking skills might feel like a luxury. But did you know you can spend about the same amount of money on your mini vacation on a basic resume and cover letter session with a career coach?

A great basic resume won’t make you laugh out loud or take selfies with you, but it will open doors for you when you apply for jobs–over and over again. You’ll tweak the basic resume every time you apply for jobs, and you can use the same basic resume for several years, adding to it and editing it as your job history and experience changes. It’s not a one-time memory. It’s a long-term investment.

When you gain great interview skills, you don’t utilize them once and file them away. Your confidence as a candidate builds each time you interview for a job. Your investment grows exponentially the more you use it.

The next time you consider taking a mini vacation, and simultaneously wish you could switch careers or apply for a promotion but don’t have the extra cash to seek help with your resume, chew on the concepts in this article.

As someone with nine years of experience in higher education, I absolutely understand the notion of “it costs too much to seek help on my resume.” Some things are worth saving for, and if I’d never made big choices to make big changes, I’d still be wishing for something different.

Ready to get to work and invest in your career? Reach out to me for a free consultation.