Margarita Aguirre, an architectural designer at Dallas-based design firm HKS Architects, has helped student interns from Cristo Rey Dallas College Prep school learn everything from how to draw a house to how to use Revit, a 3-D modeling software program. But she has also encouraged the students to improve the “soft skills” they’ll need to be career-ready once they graduate.
“They come in shy, not having been exposed to the workplace yet,” Aguirre says. “They have their heads down, with low confidence. But even after a year, you see a huge jump.” She recalls one student – previously “not very confident” – who now “looks you right in the eye and knows he can talk to people. He’s learned to be a go-getter and to do his own research. He used to just sit there. But now he’ll say, ‘It’s on Google. I can do it myself!’”
HKS is one of many corporate partners of Cristo Rey Dallas, which integrates four years of college-prep academics with four years of work experience through its Corporate Work Study Program. The Dallas school is a member of the Cristo Rey Network of inner-city high schools, whose work-study model is now in place at 37 schools in 24 states.
Exposing high school students to foundational soft skills is important because, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, nearly 75 percent of employers state they’re having a tough time finding job candidates with soft skills in today’s tight labor market.
Unlike hard skills or technical skills required for jobs in manufacturing or technology, soft skills are sought by employers across the board. In general, the term refers to proficiency in the likes of:
- interpersonal communication
- organizational skills
- problem solving and critical thinking
- work ethic
- relationship skills, such as resolving conflict
After a two-year survey of the state’s employers, the Georgia Department of Labor concluded in 2018 that 85 percent of the survey respondents were “deeply concerned” with their employees’ work ethic and soft skills. Chief among their concerns were the workers’ attendance and punctuality, attitude and respect, discipline and character, and creative thinking and problem solving.
To bridge the soft skills gap, some states have made it mandatory for school districts to teach employability (or soft) skills. However, some education experts say that for soft skills training to be truly effective, educators also need help from local businesses. And many businesses have stepped up to the plate.
A 2017 report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation identified three business-education partnerships that have worked especially well. They are:
- Nike School Innovation Fund (NSIF). For this program, Beaverton, Oregon-based Nike paired Nike leaders with high school-based teams in Portland, Beaverton and Hillsboro, Oregon, to share the company’s insights on innovation and business expertise. According to the Chamber’s report, one of the main goals of the granting and mentorship program was “preparing students with the soft skills needed to be successful in college and their career.”
- College MAP. EY partnered with the nonprofit, College for Every Student, to mentor more than 1,500 underserved youth each year. The company’s College MAP (Mentoring for Access and Persistence) program aimed to help students understand what working in a corporate environment entails, including what sorts of soft skills will be required in a first job.
- Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection. Rochester, New York-based Wegmans Food Markets teamed up with the nonprofit, Hillside Family of Agencies, to help fund a program serving 4,000 at-risk high school students across New York school districts and in Maryland’s Prince George’s County. The biggest company participating in the Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection, with nearly 600 student employees, Wegmans provided college and career-readiness training and helped students learn the soft skills they need for employment.
In Rhode Island, a program pairing high school students with paid summer internships kicked off with a five-day “boot camp,” where students learned workplace skills including communication, goal setting, public speaking and conflict resolution.
“It was incredibly intimidating at first,” 17-year-old Emma Campbell told The Hechinger Report, an education website. “But it pushed me out of my comfort zone, made me get used to things like being able to communicate with people openly.”
The benefits of these partnerships don’t accrue just to the high school students, though. Partner companies get access to productive, entry-level employees who often make their workforces more diverse.
At HKS in Dallas, Aguirre says the Cristo Rey interns have “been useful to the company.” For example, the students have reimaged computers for the company’s IT department, helped the accounting office with payroll functions and put together formal presentations for the chief process officer. Says Aguirre, “We’re so blessed to have them here.”