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How Teens are Learning Crucial ‘Soft Skills’ Before Their Internships Start

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Editor’s note: This story about soft skills is part of Map to the Middle Class, a Hechinger Report series examining how schools can prepare students for the good middle-class jobs of the future.

When Emma Campbell began planning how to spend her summer, one thing was clear: To drive to the stables to go riding and get to and from home and her gym, she’d need to buy a lot of gas for her car, and to do that — she’d need a job. After finishing her junior year at Coventry High School, a large public school in Rhode Island, she figured her best shot at summer employment would be at Dunkin’ Donuts, or maybe a local coffee shop. But then she received an email from her guidance counselor about a new summer internship program that connected high schoolers from across the state with paid internships in local businesses, and the idea of pouring coffee all summer was dumped.

Working in an office instead of a restaurant “would probably be a much better experience,” said Campbell, who is 17 and dreams of becoming a scientist. Even so, the prospect of spending the summer working alongside seasoned professionals terrified her.

Luckily, the internship program, called Prepare Rhode Island, was designed to anticipate the nervousness a student like Campbell might experience — as well as the inevitable host of faux pas, communication disconnects and other workplace etiquette snafus that can occur when teenagers enter professional work settings. To help ward off such problems, the program featured an orientation and interview process to carefully match students with local businesses. Next, and perhaps most importantly, the 162 students who made the cut attended a five-day boot camp in which they learned crucial workplace skills such as goal setting, effective communication, teamwork, public speaking, conflict resolution and critical thinking.

Emma Campbell, 17, a senior at Coventry High School, interned at Amgen last summer via PrepareRI, a statewide workforce prep program for Rhode Island students. (Courtesy of Michele Carey Balme)

“It was incredibly intimidating at first,” Campbell recalled of the boot camp and its various challenges, such as attending a networking lunch with local heads of industry. “But it pushed me out of my comfort zone, made me get used to things like being able to communicate with people openly.”


As the labor market tightens, businesses are on the hunt, looking to fill jobs with young people coming out of schools and colleges. While there’s been a lot of talk about the demand for technical capabilities among this burgeoning pool of labor, employers complain that students lack fundamental skills: things like being able to collaborate, communicate, think critically and interact effectively with coworkers.

In response, some states have added requirements that schools teach these skills, sometimes referred to as “soft skills” or “employability skills.” States are adopting online curricula, or in some cases, developing their own programs from the ground up. But some education experts argue that too much of the burden for training people on the professional skills they need is falling on educators. For this training to be truly effective, they say, schools also need help from local industries to provide rigorous real-life workplace learning experiences. Programs like Prepare Rhode Island can offer an ideal way to get kids into the workplace, while sharing the responsibility for their training with employers, experts say.

This year, after a two-year survey of 1,100 employers in the state, the Georgia Department of Labor concluded that 85 percent of the businesses surveyed were deeply concerned with workers’ poor soft skills and work ethic. Topmost among employer worries were attendance and punctuality, attitude and respect, discipline and character. Among the findings, 87 percent of employers expressed concerns about their workers’ abilities to engage in creative thinking and problem solving.

“In the workforce shortage we’re facing right now, soft skills are very much one of the biggest concerns,” said Mark Butler, commissioner for the Georgia Department of Labor, who is spearheading the state’s Business Employability Skills Training, a soft skills program that, he said, is now in 200 high schools and 30 middle schools and is expected to expand to elementary school. “The biggest reason people aren’t getting work right now is not so much a lack of technical training, it’s really their lack of soft skills. Most employers are desperate for workers, and willing to train people to do those jobs. Where they’re struggling is to correct some of the behavior issues.”

After agreeing to take on 10 summer interns from the Prepare Rhode Island program last summer, Cathy Desjarlais, a human resources manager at biotech company Amgen’s Rhode Island site, had reservations about the new interns, apprehensive they would display the behavior issues Butler described. “Would they come appropriately dressed, would they behave appropriately in our corporate setting — even just walking through the hallways — they are high school students and this would be, for many of them, their first work experience in a corporate setting,” said Desjarlais. “My main concern was how they’d adapt to the workplace and could they behave.”

Here are the skills businesses look for in young people

Research suggests Desjarlais was right to be concerned. When the National Association of Colleges surveyed employers and graduating college seniors last year, it discovered a broad disconnect between how each party perceived students’ competencies in areas such as oral and written communication, career management and leadership. The greatest discrepancy concerned students’ professionalism and work ethic: While nearly 90 percent of students rated themselves as proficient in this area, only 42 percent of employers in fact considered them such.

Some experts, though, point out that employer handwringing over young people’s lack of preparedness isn’t novel. “Industry and education people want to talk about 21st-century skills and soft skills and lump them all together as if we’re talking about something new,” said Grover Whitehurst, senior fellow in economic studies for the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “These are also 19th-century skills.”

Peter Cappelli, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, disputes the notion that young people today have less ability to engage effectively in a workplace than those of prior generations. “Employers have always complained that young people lack maturity. That’s because they are young,” Cappelli said.

Still, as employers clamor for workers with these aptitudes, more and more states are integrating soft skills instruction into the K-12 curriculum. Indiana, for example, passed a law this spring requiring all schools to begin teaching employability skills by the beginning of 2019. California is exploring how to best teach these skills to students through the New World of Work program, a U.S. Department of Education-funded project currently being piloted at nine community colleges that includes a classroom curriculum, workplace learning and a credential. While many state programs bear similarities to U.S. Department of Education recommendations for career and technical education programs, individual states tweak components to suit their industry sectors.

Prepare Rhode Island, for example, is a direct response to the state’s looming workforce shortage. By 2020, the state estimates 70 percent of its jobs will require either an industry-recognized certificate or a post-secondary degree, and yet, less than 45 percent of the state’s residents have any education beyond high school. The state is pouring money into myriad job-training efforts — including $3 million into a variety of youth initiatives this year, $739,228 of which funded the Prepare Rhode Island boot camp and internship, according to Heather Hudson, executive director of the Governor’s Workforce Board, the state agency behind the effort.

The Workforce Board chose an independent nonprofit to operate the internship program and act as a middleman between schools and local businesses. That took some of the burden off teachers and school administrators who are already stretched thin, say the program’s backers. “While our educational system is in the mix here, changing that system just takes longer than the timeframe we have to ramp up,” said Nina Pande, executive director of the nonprofit, Skills for Rhode Island’s Future. “So we’re supplementing to make sure our children don’t fall even farther behind in understanding what the workplace will demand of them when they graduate.”

The nonprofit was charged with vetting the interns, bringing local industry into the mix, as well as providing training, covering liability and paying the interns an above-minimum wage of $11.25 per hour for two months of summer work. Not having to deal with all those concerns, said Amgen’s Desjarlais, went a long way toward convincing her company to participate. “There has to be something in it for both parties, especially if you’re working to get the corporation to recognize the benefit,” she said. “It’s tough for employers to say no to a program where all you need to do is take the interns on. I think if there’s incentive, that will help open doors.”

Nariq Richardson, 18, is a senior at Rhode Island’s Academy for Career Exploration. A summer internship at Gilbane, a construction company, inspired him to seriously consider a career in the field, maybe as a project manager or architect. (Courtesy of Vilson Gamez)

Nariq Richardson, a senior at Academy for Career Exploration, a high school in Providence, spent his summer internship at Gilbane, a local construction company. At Gilbane, Richardson worked on a variety of tasks, including inserting hyperlinks into the firm’s blueprints and documenting construction progress with 360-degree photos he took at a job site. “That was my first real, paying job. I was really nervous, but I gained a lot of confidence,” said the 18-year-old.

Before the internship, Richardson had envisioned a technical career like computer programming. But Prepare Rhode Island taught him that he can excel in multitasking, working with colleagues and problem solving. Now he’s thinking of going into the construction field, he said, “maybe as a project manager or architect.”

This story about soft skills was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.



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