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Teaching workplace skills at Crystal Lake schools

Published: Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

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CRYSTAL LAKE – A few simple handshakes with his high school teachers might have unlocked the tools Victor Brito could need to start a successful career one day.

The sophomore is part of a pilot program at Crystal Lake Central High School called AVID, which aims to teach students “soft skills” such as communication, time management, organization and other skills that business leaders say incoming workers are lacking.

A recent study by Millennial Branding, a Generation Y research and consulting firm, showed employers are concerned with the lack of communication skills, time management and work ethic shown by employees in their 20s. Roughly 50 percent of all managers surveyed said those employees have unrealistic compensation expectations, a poor work ethic and are easily distracted.

English teacher Shannon Levitt noticed some of those needed skills declining in students and started the first AVID class in the district with the handshake. All of her students had to shake hands with all their teachers, introduce themselves, make direct eye contact and say they would like to be seated in the front row.

AVID – an acronym for Advancement Via Individual Determination – is a national program that is on a trial run at Crystal Lake South and Crystal Lake Central high schools this year.

“I have seen major improvements in self-confidence and self-esteem and even after only one semester their GPAs have increased,” Levitt said of students in the program. “The soft skills are built right into the curriculum. It really preps students for what they will need for college and careers.”

Brito said he has developed skills in the program that have helped more than he thought possible. The primary assessment in the class comes from the organization of notes and materials the students keep in all their classes and the notes they take.

The note taking process, Brito said, encourages students to re-evaluate what they wrote and develop questions each week for their teachers, which also helps with communication.

“It’s already helped me with my grades and with the way I study,” Brito said. “We have so much to do in a little time, and it helps keep us on track.”

Officials at the college level have also noticed the decline in the nonacademic skills that are the difference between career success and struggles.

Flecia Thomas, dean of student success at McHenry County College, said while students today are great at communicating in a variety of ways, many do not know the realities of formal business communication, which can include criticism from employers that young workers may have been shielded from most of their lives.

“Everybody is used to getting a trophy now and some students don’t understand there are winners and losers,” Thomas said. “You’re going to have to produce. There is not usually a lot given to those who are also-rans.”

Thomas said there has been a greater emphasis on resumé building, interview skills, workplace expectations and introducing students to the diverse setting of a modern workplace to equip them with the tools they will need to succeed.

“Employers are looking for the real deal,” she said. “And we work to get our students to be just that and stand out from others with those soft skills and leadership skills.”

Barbara Billimack, the ‎lead youth career adviser at McHenry County Workforce Network, said this will be the third year county employers are invited to address participants in her youth program about the expectations and skills needed in the workforce.

Billimack said students are often so focused on technical skills in the job they seek that they overlook the importance of soft skills. She said many employers would prefer to have an employee with a good attitude and strong work ethic and train technical skills compared to a skilled worker lacking soft skills.

Through the program, participants can earn a National Career Readiness Certificate – a recognition employers around the country are taking more seriously.

“Employers just want someone who will show up with a good attitude and be willing to learn,” Billimack said. “In a lot of cases, I don’t think students understand those soft skills are just as important.”

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