Lessons in building soft skills for youth

Little Rock’s Vontia Mitchell will discuss ways cities can develop soft skills for youth during a session at the Neighborhoods, USA Conference in Memphis.
City jobs programs are important steps to engage a community’s youth population. It gives the students a needed paycheck while also offering unique skills.
In Little Rock, Arkansas, the program takes the effort a step further, also helping students develop soft skills. Vontia Mitchell, a Specialist in the Little Rock Community Programs Department, is in Memphis as part of the 41st Annual Neighborhoods, USA Conference. She will lead a presentation titled “A Measure of Success” on May 27 that examines the city of Little Rock’s Career Crash Course program that she and Shandrea Murphy created last year.
In Little Rock, it was clear that employers saw a lack of soft skills from potential employees, particularly young adults. In an effort to reduce the number of youth leaving high school without the necessary skills to thrive in the workplace, the city developed “A Measure of Success,” a series of courses that concentrate on soft skills development through efficient learning strategies.
The course was developed as a Friday add-on of sorts to the city’s summer youth employment program, which has existed successfully for years. It’s garnered national recognition for workforce development and employs about 700 young adults in the city during the summer.
The participants don’t work on Fridays. The Community Programs Department began to look at ways it could leverage that day to teach participants important skills. Dana Dossett, Director of Community Programs for the city of Little Rock, gave the task of figuring out what to do on Fridays to two interns, Mitchell and Murphy.
They had eight days to create a program, including figuring out content, finding instructors and marketing it to students. They were recognized by the state Attorney General’s office for their work.
“When Shandrea and I worked together we were both in school at the time so our approach was to tackle it like it was a school project,” said Mitchell, a graduate student at Arkansas State University at the time. “We thought about things we thought we needed, what we were either taught in or outside school or things we were not taught. For example, a lot of young people don’t know you should ask questions in an interview. It shows your employer you’re interested and you’ve done your research.”
The two thought of the soft skills needed and came up with a list of class titles, making a lesson plan and finding speakers for each of the eight topics.
“For me it was sitting down and looking at the things I needed help with,” said Murphy, a recent graduate of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. “You go to high school and then college, you’re not thinking about some of the things you need to know. What did I miss out on in school that these kids could need? What is something we didn’t get a chance to get information on that would’ve helped?”
The courses are set up to run five weeks along with the summer jobs program. Students participate in two courses per day, ranging from how to dress properly for a job or on a job interview, to how to interview for a job and proper conduct in an office setting.
In the first year any student could come. The goal this year is to attract the same 50 students to attend every week. The hook is being first in line for the jobs program next year. Students as young as 13 signed up for the courses last year, in part to improve their chances at a job in the program in future years.
“What we’re seeing is if you finish the program we know you have the soft skills to be successful in the program and you’re placed at the top for next year,” Dossett said. “You’ve done the in-depth work to be successful in the workforce. A big majority of our students (in the jobs program) come back every year.”
An offshoot of the soft skills program is the realization that many of the participants also will be interested in attending college. So a College Crash Course open to 50 students will work in conjunction with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Students will learn about the university and its various departments, how to apply for student aid and other things that will make the transition to college life manageable.
And having Murphy and Mitchell involved is crucial for connecting to youth, Dossett said.
“What we want to get across to other cities is a lot of times they’re not paying attention to students,” she said. “This is what it means, not just give them a voice. It’s another thing for them to be actively involved. There’s ownership. And instead of it being someone like me who is 50 there is another Vontia out there watching them. They can relate to them. It makes a big difference and it gives them real-world experience. … We’re trying to get other cities to understand how to trust youth.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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