Janesville48°

Not dressed for success

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Esther Cepeda
October 23, 2011
— I was curled up in an armchair at my local coffee shop when a teenage boy took a seat at the table next to me.

He was like any of a thousand boys, my two sons included, in my community: dressed in sagging jeans that come pre-manufactured with worn spots and wrinkles, an oversized hoodie, and skateboarding shoes.


Things got interesting when the manager pulled up a chair and commenced a formal job interview.


Slumped in his seat, the young interviewee answered a series of standard interview prompts with incomplete sentences. He stared at his hands and chewed gum. The manager had several concerns related to his written application, which the young man had apparently not filled out correctly, and it turned out he also hadn't brought any legal form of identification.


This was as bad a job interview as I've ever witnessed. Though it's not a unique occurrence -- anyone who hires people knows that some candidates are more prepared than others -- it made me very sad for this young person and alarmed for the future of our country.


Here was a seemingly nice kid searching for a job in the worst employment environment for teens in at least half a century. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 48.8 percent of people 16 to 24 were employed in July 2011, the typical peak month for youth employment, the lowest rate on record since 1948 when the bureau started keeping track. And he clearly didn't have a clue how to go about it.


The tips and tricks that adults who've been in the workforce for at least a few years should know by heart -- dress professionally, be prepared to answer open-ended questions with complete thoughts, make eye contact, shake hands firmly, say "thank you" -- were completely outside this young man's understanding.


With the exception of our everyday mode of dress, these are the behaviors that are essential for just getting through life -- the very bare minimum for successfully interacting and communicating with others.


So who is at fault for this young man's lack of ability to manage himself outside his circle of friends and family? Can we blame his parents for not teaching him how to talk to adults, the schools for not training students in basic job-interviewing skills, or society for not reinforcing effective communication behavior?


It's really all of the above.


Though we'd like to imagine family, teachers or community mentors passing on basic professional skills to our young people, it's probably a stretch to think they can.


"Even students approaching college graduation have not been taught these fine points. Academics, especially at the postsecondary level, seem to feel that teaching basic job-search skills is beneath them," Katharine Hansen, a Ph.D. in organizational behavior and the editor of the Quintessential Careers newsletter for jobseekers, told me in an email.


"Many parents themselves are not well-versed in job search. Because of the need to truly reinforce information about job search with young people -- so they really learn it -- I am convinced that a combination of parents, teachers and community leaders would be ideal. But some of those entities will need to learn job-search (and) interview basics themselves."


Tariq Saqqaf, youth programs director at Common Wealth Development, a nonprofit in Madison, Wis., that trains low-income students to obtain and succeed in their first jobs, echoed Hansen's assessment and added that this issue goes far beyond just funding and offering job-interview training.


"We have an erosion -- globally, societally -- in our ability to interact with other people in a really direct and personal way," Saqqaf told me. "It's startling to me how we are losing very simple things like saying 'please' and 'thank you,' and though we tend to see that more in the younger generation, there are plenty of 30-, 40- and 50-year-olds doing the same thing.


"We are really focused on 'me' -- and the notion of being polite, of working to put something out in the world for others, is not necessarily a consciousness we have."


The lesson is that if we want to help our young people succeed in life, we're going to have to spend as much energy teaching them how to be engaged and courteous toward others as we do pushing them to excel academically.


Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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