Educating to Ensure Soft Skills

College can prepare you for the technical aspects of entry-level IT work, but what about the other half of good performance — professionalism? Where do you learn the soft skills that will help you get and keep a job?

That was the question Heartland Community College in Normal, Ill., set out to answer in late 2006 with the introduction of its Information Technology Essentials program, one of a suite of three semester-long Essentials classes intended to impart job and life skills to students about to enter the workforce.

“It’s really built around those skills that will not only help someone find a job but stay in a job,” said Pam Westerdahl, director of workforce services at Heartland. “We’re teaching them how they need to deal with their problems, what they need to do, who they need to see and how they need to problem solve.”

The Essentials idea began in 2002 after local employers and social service providers approached the college with complementary concerns.

“Employers are telling us they’re seeing a lot of people out there looking for work, but few qualified candidates,” said Robert Shaw, associate dean of technical instruction at Heartland. “And by ‘qualified,’ they’re not necessarily talking about high-level skills, just an essential core of skills coupled with workplace readiness.”

Meanwhile, social service agencies were saying they had quite a few people who could fill those open positions with the benefit of some training.

So Heartland developed its first Essentials installment – a 16-week, Monday-through-Friday, five-hour-a-day intensive training class of about 20 students, called Business Essentials. Students were required to apply for the program (the college otherwise has open enrollment), attend a group orientation and have individual interviews before being accepted.

“Quite honestly, we try to scare them out of it,” Westerdahl said, “because this is very difficult.”

Once enrolled, students engage in college-level courses on everything from technical skills to people skills. In the Information Technology Essentials program, they take an introductory computer literacy course, as well as several classes based loosely on CompTIA A+ certification for PC maintenance and repair. They also take a workforce preparation class, which teaches basic interviewing and on-the-job skills, and participate in a course called Life Success that works on building longer-term career goals.

“It’s a very personalized program,” Westerdahl said. “We integrate work ethics into all of our training, and we do individual career planning for each of the students.”

The program also simulates a real-life work experience, as students must arrive every day by 9 a.m., work at least a five-hour day and learn to prioritize their own work.

“Part of that linkage with employers is helping [students] understand employer expectations, and what a real workplace environment is like,” Shaw said.

Not surprisingly, the Essentials suite has a great deal of support from local employers, who are actively involved in providing job-shadowing and mock-interview opportunities, as well as internships and potential jobs.

The program is geared toward students who have experienced obstacles in their educational or professional endeavors, Westerdahl said. The program is fully committed to alleviating any issues that might bar a student from succeeding in the program, and everything from financial aid to health, child care, transportation and food-stamp services are offered. In addition, the program employs a staff member with a degree in social work to help assist with any extracurricular problems.

While these services are crucial for many students at Heartland, they might also be considered a crutch, as employees often can’t expect the same extent of benefits in the workplace. Therefore, Westerdahl said students enrolled in the Essentials program learn how to address these issues on their own and sustain themselves.

The success of the Business Essentials and Information Technology Essentials programs resulted in the addition of Manufacturing Essentials earlier this year. Also, Westerdahl said the premise behind Essentials is becoming more popular, and other institutions have been adopting similar programs.

– Agatha Gilmore, agilmore@certmag.com

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