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.

 

 

3 ways to avoid interview clichés

If you’ve interviewed for job openings more than a handful of times, you’re probably familiar with the body language an employer exhibits when he’s bored, tired of listening to you talk, or turned off by something you said.

Isn’t that a horrible feeling?

I was recently interviewed by writer Matt Krumrie for an article on ZipRecruiter.com about interview clichés. In addition to the helpful information in this article, I’m providing you with my top three ways to drive employers crazy during interviews—and ways to avoid driving them crazy, too, by avoiding interview clichés.

Which came first… canned interview questions or cliché interview responses? The chicken or the egg?

It doesn’t really matter, does it? If your end goal is to land a great job with a great company, you have to be smart and prepared. If the employer throws out 10 canned interview questions, and you’re adequately prepared for the interview, you’ll be able to respond candidly and concisely while avoiding interview clichés.

It’s important for you as a job seeker to understand that recruiters will likely ask a standard set of questions for a variety of reasons. Employers must ask candidates the same/similar questions to avoid exhibiting bias, and most employers also don’t have time to reinvent the wheel when preparing for interviews with candidates. Employers need to ascertain as quickly as possible whether candidates fit well within the open position and within the company’s culture. It’s your job as the candidate to provide unique, detailed information within the confines of standard interview questions. The only way to do this is by adequately preparing for interviews. Reality check: you will likely be asked standard interview questions. If you don’t prepare responses in advance, you’re choosing to perform poorly and weed yourself out of the screening/hiring process.

Here are three standard interview clichés and ways to avoid them.

  1. “What’s your greatest weakness?”

You’ll be asked this question in at least half of your interviews. Please don’t mention a strength and spin it as a weakness. This is a really old school tip, and employers see right through it. How many times have employers heard candidates say, “Well, I’m a perfectionist, and it causes me to spend too much time on projects?”

Even if this is true, employers will either call bull or roll their eyes at this response. Instead of taking this approach, mention a true weakness, but limit the weaknesses you mention to teachable skills. “I have to admit I wish I had more cross training experience in HTML. My lack of coding is very limited, and when I switch over to code occasionally, I am not as comfortable as I’d like to be. I’d like more training in this area so I can contribute in more ways to my team.” The reason this approach works is because most employers recognize that you’re mentioning a problem which can be easily remedied by professional development or training, and you’re expressing a desire to learn. Good employers don’t see these weaknesses as insurmountable problems but as opportunities for growth.

  1. “Tell me about yourself.”

Avoid responding by launching into a monologue about your life. Unless employers are hoping you’ll throw yourself under the bus so they can weed you out from a big pool of candidates, employers simply don’t want to know about every detail of your life, and they don’t have time to hear the story, either.

What do they care about? They care about what is relevant to the company, to the position, to your work background and future career goals. Briefly explain who you are, where you’ve been, and where you’re going. Keep it simple. Avoid sharing personal information which might give away information employers can’t legally ask you. If you’re not familiar with illegal interview questions, add this to your interview prep to-do list.

  1. “Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years”

Do not lie to your potential employer and respond with, “Why, working for you, of course.”

Employers understand that you’re a human being with hopes, dreams, and goals. They want to hear about your future career plans. However, use caution when sharing your plans during an interview; it’s probably not a good idea to mention that in two years, you hope to quit your job and move to Jamaica for the rest of your life.

Focus on what you hope to gain from your employment with their company, but more importantly, how you hope to contribute to the company’s goals or overall mission. Do you want to transition from a contributing writer to editor-in-chief within 10 years? Don’t be afraid to mention that. It’s ambitious, but a quality employer wants to hire candidates with drive and motivation.

It’s better to showcase yourself as caring deeply about your career than as someone who provides cliché answers due to lack of concern or preparation. With a little interview preparation, you’ll not only avoid clichés; you’ll also land your dream job.

Need help preparing for upcoming job interviews? Reach out to me for a free consultation, and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn for more tips.

 

Resume templates: Just say no (and why)

I recently read an article explaining why using resume templates is a bad idea. At the end of the article, the expert quoted in the article admits that most resume writers use templates themselves and that “they’re not starting with a blank sheet of paper every time.”

This depends on the resume writer, I suppose, but I must protest!

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Photo by Pixabay.com

Let me explain my own resume writing process and the rationale behind the old school approach I take to resume writing.

First of all, I believe in helping people write resumes. I do not write resumes for people—I write resumes with clients. As a career coach and as a former faculty member and career development director, I believe in helping clients create documents they can send to employers as honest representations of themselves. If I do all the work and 100% of the writing myself, I don’t believe the end products (resumes and cover letters) are honest representations of my clients. For this reason, I work closely with clients to create well-written documents (that’s where my expertise as a professional writer comes in). The end products reflect my clients, featuring their own unique voice and tone. I probably spend more time with clients than the average resume writer or career coach during the resume writing process, and that’s okay with me.

When you need help with your resume, you contact me. Most of you already have a draft of a resume or an existing resume on hand. You send it to me to review, and we begin working to create something much better together. In this case we’re not starting with a blank page, but we’re not starting with a template either.

Let’s say you have absolutely nothing created and that you’ve never drafted a resume in your life. We would literally start with a blank page, but I’d ask you to gather documentation to help me understand your work history, your educational background, and other key components to help us create a killer resume.

I want to be clear that when I say “killer resume,” I’m referring to the CONTENT of your resume, not to any fancy design elements. Resumes are not meant to be pretty or graphically impressive. They should be streamlined and easy for recruiters and hiring managers to read. After all, the average recruiter spends about six seconds reviewing your resume. Your resume layout should be ATS (applicant tracking system) compatible. If it’s not, you will not likely receive many interview offers.

At no point in time would I suggest that any job seeker—whether a college student, entry-level candidate, or executive-level candidate—use a resume template. Not only will templates reduce the likelihood of ATS compatibility, but they will also reduce the odds of your resume standing out from the stack of resumes on the recruiter’s desk. How many candidates do you think used the same template, including the same suggestions for wording? In addition, editing resumes created in templates is almost always clunky and time-consuming.

Your resume is the key which opens the door to potential job opportunities. If you’re using the wrong key, you can try as many doors as you like, but you won’t make it into the lobby for the next phase of the process—job interviews—if recruiters don’t respond well to your resume.

Let’s get to work on your first step toward success.

Need help editing or creating your own resume or cover letter? Reach out to Bethany for assistance or to ask questions about how career coaching might help you.

The spirit of coaching: Paying it forward

I never set out to become a networking expert. I’ve simply always applied a few basic principles instilled in me at a young age. By my mid-twenties, I earned the title of Director of Career Development at a private liberal arts institution. Most of the other directors were in their fifties. I should have felt like a fish out of water, but I didn’t. My boss mentored me and surrounded me with great mentors, and because of his wise leadership, I learned one of the greatest truths about networking: it’s not always about what I can get from the relationship but what I can give. I am forever in debt to the dozens of higher education and recruiting professionals who answered my calls, returned my emails, and visited with me over dinner during that time. I’m still paying it forward.

11695536_10101687271446497_3658427641815678578_nSince then, I’ve worked in various fields, in both private and public sectors, in higher education and in the corporate world. Helping college students, recent graduates, and other job seekers in need of guidance take the next best steps for them in their individual career journeys still thrills me. Whether writing content for students and grads or teaching college students how to write, I still find myself circling back to the questions, “What do you want to do with your life? And how are you going to reach that goal? Do you need help to get there?”

I can’t tell you how many of my former students’ resumes and cover letters I’ve edited and how many friends, former students, and coworkers I’ve advised regarding career choices before starting this business. I don’t regret one minute of that time. I have invested in their careers; I have invested in their lives.

This is the crux of networking.

For this reason, striking out as a career coach was an easy decision.

My goal as a career coach is to offer you the same level of genuine care, consideration, and thoughtful reflection as I have shared with my students, friends, and coworkers in the past and yet to take things to a deeper level. I won’t just share thoughts with you; I’ll ask you to take actions. The goal of our time together is to work, after all.

I recently shared this networking tip of the day on LinkedIn, and I think it captures the spirit of my goal when working with clients. I certainly look forward to applying these principles when working with you.

Networking tip of the day: Do more than is asked of you on a daily basis for clients, colleagues, and supervisors. You never know when someone you’ve gone above and beyond for will do the same for you when you least expect it (and really need it). This is networking at its finest, but it only works if you suit up and show up with a high degree of ethics, passion, and kindness on a daily basis.