by Maria Town
(Editor's Note: Maria Town is a policy advisor in the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy; she focuses on youth issues.)
Who can forget their first job? Mine came as a teenager when I worked as a receptionist for a personal injury attorney. You know, one of those lawyers who comes on television and says, "If you've been in an accident, call me!" Well, all sorts of people called our office seeking help, and I answered phones, made copies, scheduled appointments and filed papers.
Aside from being in an office, this job had little to do with the profession I eventually pursued. However, it was probably the most valuable job I've ever had — because it helped me understand the value of a paycheck and the importance of work and personal responsibility. But there's something else I learned in that first job that helped fuel my professional success today — and that's the importance of "soft skills." That experience was about more than simply answering phones and taking messages; it was about supporting clients, relating to co-workers, being punctual and behaving professionally. In other words, it helped me recognize the importance of interpersonal and other soft skills that were so vital to my boss and our business.
There's no question that early job experiences are essential to developing soft skills. Conversely, soft skills are essential to getting early work experiences, because they make us more marketable. Yet, many young people — particularly those with disabilities — do not receive training or education about soft skills before dipping their feet into the world of work.
Recognizing this, the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) has developed two free career development resources designed to sharpen the communication and other soft skills of young workers, both with and without disabilities. Called "Skills to Pay the Bills: Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success," this series includes a curriculum and a set of videos with an accompanying discussion guide, both of which are available for download or mail order.
These resources are targeted at youth, ages 14 to 21, in both in-school and out-of-school environments. The curriculum was designed to be inclusive and is comprised of modular, hands-on, engaging activities that focus on six key skills: communication, enthusiasm and attitude, teamwork, networking, problem solving and critical thinking and professionalism. The curriculum can be adapted to suit the needs of any group. The video series also addresses these six themes and can be used separately or as a complement to the curriculum. In fact, mail-order DVDs of the videos include a guide with "conversation starters" to help spark discussions among youth about the importance of soft skills to career and personal success.
These are outstanding, practical tools, and I encourage anyone who works with young job seekers to check them out. Simply access the "Skills to Pay the Bills" curriculum and video series on ODEP's web site or order them in hard copy, free of charge.
I’ve come a long way from that first job working the phones. Today, I'm a policy advisor in ODEP and part of the team behind the soft skills products. And as I continue my journey along my own professional trajectory, I know I'll never stop honing those "Skills to Pay the Bills."