It’s hard to get a job without work experience, but it’s nigh impossible to get work experience without that first job.
That’s the loop some teenagers and young adults are caught in, said Liz Schlegel, executive director of the Alchemist Foundation, which begins its WorkReady program June 17.
The free weeklong program at Community College of Vermont in Morrisville offers hands-on customer-service experience, and training in workplace “soft skills.”
“It goes from the very basics — showing up on time and listening, and those kinds of things, to being able to put your phone down, make eye contact with people, get on the phone when you need to,” Schlegel said.
“A lot of people who haven’t had jobs yet don’t know the basics of working with other folks.”
That’s what the WorkReady course aims to fix, as does a two-day life skills course organized by a Stowe High School parent, Doren Dolan, and taught by seven area leaders, including therapist Dr. Rick Barnett, financial literacy professional John Pelletier and Ernie and Julie Roick of Phit Performance.
Augie Stevens — Liz Schlegel’s son — graduated from high school, went to college, and now works at Crossroads Beverage and Deli. He participated in WorkReady’s pilot program in February.
“It did reinforce a lot of good behavior and helped me cement that — the behavior of what it means to be a good employee and to be a good customer-service rep,” Stevens said.
“It’s an additional learning program of things that people are forced to learn on their own, and if I had had a class like this when I was in high school, it would have made the ability to get a job and my expectations of what a job is supposed to be much better,” Stevens said.
Schlegel says Americans get their first job, on average, at age 19.
“It feels really late,” she said. “We’re making some progress on that with out-of-school work experiences and internships and co-op learning experiences that happen at the tech center, but still, folks have to get that experience somewhere.”
There are a few reasons people are entering the workforce later than they used to, said Mathew Barewicz, economist with the Vermont Department of Labor.
“For one, we’re seeing participation in postsecondary education increasing, and that could put downward pressure on the labor force participation rate of young people,” Barewicz said. “The other thing we’re hearing from parents is that the competition for entry into postsecondary is so robust that young people today don’t have time to participate in the job market.”
So, because kids have to go to college to be competitive in the job market after school, they don’t have time to work before or during college, since just getting in is more and more challenging.
“There was a time period where it was more common for young people to go to work to make ends meet, but nowadays, that doesn’t seem to be as necessary,” Barewicz said.
He clarified — it’s not that people are wealthier today; it’s likely they’re finding other ways to make ends meet.
“There’s definitely a sense that extracurriculars are more important than a job for a lot of families. They might steer their young person, or the young person might steer themselves, toward playing a couple of different sports and doing music and being in a bunch of clubs. It’s kind of the well-rounded experience, and a job should be part of the mix, too,” Schlegel said.
WorkReady and the LifeSkills for Seniors Retreat aim to give kids a leg up on that first job.
Life experience, job experience
WorkReady is taught by Katie Willard of Community College of Vermont, plus a handful of local business owners.
Schlegel said kids get hands-on customer-service experience, such as having lunch at a local business and watching how the customer interactions work.
“That is at the core of just about all the jobs in our area. It’s some of the most transferable skills there are,” Schlegel said. “My ability to make a great PowerPoint is certainly a transferable skill but if I can’t get along with my coworkers or if I can’t understand what somebody needs when they come to me with a problem, it doesn’t matter how good my PowerPoints are.
“The teamwork, understanding, customer service, all these critical ideas that employers want people to know about — you learn a lot of that in an academic setting, but it is different when it’s at work. Your employer could lose a customer because you didn’t have your A-game in being nice to somebody,” Schlegel said. “I just had so many conversations with businesses who were feeling really stressed by the fact that people didn’t seem to know what they consider the basics.”
Patti Clark, innkeeper at Green Mountain Inn, will help at WorkReady, and says a lot of young employees have quite a bit to learn about customer service.
“I find that a lot of the young individuals coming into the workplace, they’re not used to working up to an eight-hour shift. I think that’s something that they could learn in their training, that there is an expectation that the shifts may be long, and if you do have issues with that then you should talk to your supervisor but not just quit your job because it’s too much work,” Clark said. “I find that that happens a lot. They don’t problem-solve; they just decide they don’t like the work and they leave.
“You have to have a friendly, welcome feel about yourself, and a lot of younger kids, they don’t look people in the eye, they don’t smile as much as is important. I think some customer-service skill training would be beneficial,” Clark said.
“No one really tells you that stuff,” Doren said. She started the LifeSkills for Seniors Retreat about five years ago, when she was helping her son prepare for college.
“I was like, ‘There’s so much that he doesn’t know before he goes off to college,’” she said.
LifeSkills for Seniors includes a lesson from Dr. Kim Bruno of Morrisville Family Practice about when to see a doctor, financial literacy advice from Pelletier and self-defense lessons from Ernie Roick.
Schlegel says people with strong customer-service skills can climb the ladder faster than those without, especially in Vermont, where many entry-level jobs are in hospitality and food service.
“You can’t always make a great living at those jobs as you grow older, where you have to make your own living, and so you have to have more skills to get to the next level,” Schlegel said. “Maybe it’s starting as the busboy, but then moving into being a waiter, and then moving into a manager. If you have an understanding of the skills, you can do that.”