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Soft skills get a hard emphasis for prospective job seekers
Educators, business owners stress need for professional behavior in workplace
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Job seekers descend on the Gainesville Civic Center during the annual Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce job fair in March. Today's job seekers coming out of college need more than vocational skills; they need to master the "soft skills" of professional behavior to be attractive to employers.

GeorgiaBEST

Ten Soft Skills Standards

• Professional image

• Attendance/punctuality

• Attitude and respect

• Social media ethics

• Discipline and character

• Oral and written business communication skills

• Productivity and academic performance

 Responsibility and organization

• Self-management and time-management

• Teamwork and work habits

Source: Georgia Department of Labor

As public schools, technical colleges and universities prepare students to enter today’s workforce, it’s not enough to teach them the skills needed to do a particular type of job or career.

Officials say students also need basic “soft skills” required to get and keep a job.

“Employability skills, soft skills, they’re called lots of different things,” said Misty Freeman, director of college and career readiness for the Gainesville City School System. “We want kids to understand having the knowledge to be able to do a job, but you’ve got to know how to keep that job. You’ve got to look the part, dress how you’re supposed to, follow directions, have good customer service skills, be on time, have good work ethic, all of that. Everybody wants good employees; that’s who I want to hire to work with me.”

Rhonda Samples, director of the Career, Technical and Agricultural Education for Hall County Schools, has worked in the field for more than 30 years. She said concerns about soft skills in the workforce has become prominent “in the last two to three years.”

“All I know is everytime we bring employers in; we’ve held several focus groups for our advisory committees for our different CTAE programs and that’s what we keep hearing is soft skills, soft skills,” said Samples. “(Employers say) ‘We can teach them some of the technical skills, but we’ve got to have employees who know how to show up on time, how to be honest, most importantly, Can they work as a team? Can they collaborate with others?’ That’s why the emphasis is on soft skills more.”

Al Trembley, owner of WSI Digital Rainmakers in Gainesville, is one of those employers who is concerned about the need for employees with strong soft skills.

“I don’t think they understand the impact that it’s going to have on a business because they want to have a day off. I don’t think they get it,” he said of employees without the skills. “They have no idea that one decision impacts two or three other things that impact either a business or other people. It’s not registering with them yet.

“I don’t think that they’re lazy; I don’t think that they’re not talented,” Trembley added. “I think that they’re very skilled. I just don’t think they’ve grabbed a hold of someone or a teacher that can show them how to do certain things, how to interact with people, how to meet with clients the things that you do say when you email to them, the things that you don’t say when you email to them, the importance of being on time.”

Edward Wai-Ming Lai, associate director for career services at the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus, said he believes technology has played a role in the fact that some younger employees do not have soft skills.

“They are very good at computers, they are very good at texting, they are very good in some form of written communication,” he said. “However, when we come to public speaking, social relationships, social intelligence, I think they have some more that they need to learn.”

Samples agreed.

“I think they’re so technology-integrated that they’d rather send a text, or be on a computer than do person-to-person interaction,” she said. “Go out to eat — how many families are talking to each other?”

At UNG, Lai said officials encourage students to take classes like leadership and public speaking to help develop soft skills.

“We also have a large number of extracurricular activities like student clubs and we encourage every student to consider one of those clubs so they can build teamwork,” he said. “They can build a communications skills, they can be in situation where they are running a committee and now they have two camps of ideas which is hard to negotiate.

“I encourage students to find a mentor. Go to your church group, go to your organization, find someone most people like to talk to. Usually they have a lot of good soft skills. Take them to meetings, see how they interact with people, how they build relationships, how they deal with tension, how they deal with conflict. Mentors are very critical.”

Lanier Technical College President Ray Perren said technical colleges have been addressing the need for these skills for about 20 years

“The Technical College System of Georgia since the late 1990s has had what we call a work ethic curriculum that identified 10 characteristics that we think are important to have to be successful in a job,” Perren said. “These are the soft skills, things like attendance, punctuality, teamwork, cooperation, professional dress and so forth. For years when we have talked with employers, they have told us if someone is ever dismissed or disciplined on the job, it’s typically not because of job skills; it’s typically because of work ethic.”

Perren said Lanier Tech students complete a “work ethic module” as a requirement for graduation.

The Georgia Department of Labor has developed GeorgiaBEST, which stands for Business Ethics Student Training, and includes 10 soft skills standards officials believe are important in the workplace: professional image, attendance/punctuality, attitude and respect, social media ethics, discipline and character, oral and written business communications skills, productivity and academic performance, responsibility and organization, self-management and time-management, and teamwork and work ethics.

Middle and high school students can receive GeorgiaBEST credentials. Freeman said the state Department of Education included the soft skills in revised state standards,“because we want all kids exposed multiple times, not just one time.”

Samples said 1,010 Hall County high school students received different levels of GeorgiaBEST credentials last year. Another 493 Hall County middle school students achieved the certification for their grade levels. In addition to scoring 80 percent proficiency on lessons and other requirements, Samples said GeorgiaBEST credentialed students must have a minimum 3.0 grade-point average and 94 percent school attendance.

Hall County Schools has also developed a new local certification with 17 soft skills lessons chosen by employers who work with Samples and school Work-Based Learning coordinators.

Freeman and Samples said they believe efforts in Gainesville and Hall County are making students better prepared to enter the workplace with better soft skills. Last year, Hall County had more than 600 students working as interns through Work-Based Learning programs, and Gainesville had 230 interns in its Work-Based, Learning giving those students a chance to see first-hand the importance of those skills.

“I think we’re exposing more students with the business community in Gainesville,” Freeman said. “The community support in local industry is just amazing. They are truly partners with us in education and want to help our students. They want a strong workforce, too.”

Samples said Work-Based Learning provides help with soft skills in the classroom as well as internships.

“In our schools, we’re encouraging teachers to form teams, let them work together, let them collaborate together, let them try to problem solve together because that’s what they’re going to need when they get out there in the real world,” she said.

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