Soft Skills Essential in Youth Employment Strategy

March 31, 2015

Recently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation released a white paper titled, Making Youth Employment Work: Essential Elements for Successful Strategy, to provide employers with proven approaches to onboarding programs for young adults. In the white paper, we lay out five essential elements of successful program implementation. Over the coming weeks, we will elaborate on each essential element for success on our blog. This week, we look at essential element #4.

Essential Element 4: Prioritize soft skill development

One of the most noted barriers is that today’s young adults are not prepared for the workplace with adequate soft skills. It is also a barrier that must be addressed because skills like punctuality, deportment, professionalism, teamwork, and communication are clearly vital for success in the workplace. The good news is that soft skills are teachable, although it takes concerted effort through targeted training and coaching during the onboarding process. As one employer notes, in comparison to their counterparts from earlier generations, those in the 16- to 24-year-old age range are less likely to have held a job—any job. The result is a mismatch between what an employer might expect and what a young person knows. Young adults may lack experience documenting their working hours (such as clocking in and out), not realize that calling in to notify a supervisor of an absence is required, or not have a sense of what constitutes appropriate work attire.

Companies (sometimes with nonprofit partners) must tackle this challenge to help shape young adults into the strong contributors they can be. Intermediaries, whose training provides a heavy dose of soft skills training, provide a helpful window into what such curriculum can potentially cover. For example, in Hillside Youth Employment Training Academy (YETA) curriculum, students learn everything from manners to how to be a team player. They are trained in proper technology etiquette, how to diffuse negative situations, what constitutes good employee behaviors, as well as other relevant topics. Yet it is important to note that almost more important than what is taught is how it is taught. Melendez says that at Hillside trainings, these lessons are preceded by the overarching principle of why these skills are important—they are meant to position young people to be successful in the work environment. “We help them understand job expectations and what’s required,” he says. This happens not just in a rote way but with an emphasis on developing judgment, such as discussing the ways in which the work environment at a Wegmans or at a medical center might differ.

Understanding the behavioral differences required between the upbeat and energetic retail work environment and the quieter, more serious setting of a medical center speaks to an important issue. At their core, many workplace soft skills—from what is considered “professional” attire to technology use, to communication best practices—are really norms that can vary widely depending on the workplace. Year Up provides soft skills training in such areas as business etiquette, conflict resolution, and proper communication skills. In addition, it provides supervisors with training that sets out clear expectations on what oversight of the intern requires in concrete, measurable terms. On the soft skills front, this includes talking about expectations and discussing what culture and success look like at the company.

Even for more sophisticated audiences, companies know that soft skills training is crucial. Caterpillar defines and exemplifies the necessary soft skills and helps employees understand the definition of each one, such as problem solving or flexibility. In addition, the company identifies and shares values, job role, and leadership competencies, in addition to functional and technical competencies. Every employee is assessed against these competencies to reinforce expected behaviors and to identify any gaps. The company provides opportunities to help bridge any gaps through formal learning, mentoring, coaching, and feedback from on-the-job experiences. Caterpillar also works not just to develop skills internally but also to share information outside the company on just what soft skills are—for example, through visual aids—to encourage teachers, professors, and professional associations to reinforce these principles by incorporating them into their curriculum and programs. 

Next week we will examine essential element #5: Measure and improve over time.