The hard work of soft skills

By Todd Asbury, President and CEO of New Peoples Bank

The fourth in the series of four “Operation Tomorrow’s Workforce” op-ed pieces

September 21, 2018 – New Peoples Bank is fortunate to have a stellar team of 250 employees.  Our community bank is in a moment of growth and service expansion and I rely on the expertise, professionalism, and enthusiasm of our team every day.  However, like many employers in our region, I am noticing a trend.  The young people entering our workforce today are less prepared in terms of the soft skills they need to succeed at work and assume leadership.

So, what are soft skills?  They are the workplace competencies many of us take for granted:  the ability to get along with coworkers, the capacity to think outside the box, the breadth to think big, the requirements behind a good decision.  Soft skills also include basic life skills: arriving for work on time, finishing tasks, meeting deadlines, and even common sense.

It used to be that teenagers learned soft skills at their summer jobs.  But according to a report from Pew Research Center on July 2 of this year, “even though there are more working-age teens today than in 2000, far fewer of them are in the labor force: 5.7 million as of last month, down from 8.1 million in May 2000. Last month, around 11 million teens (66% of the total 16-to-19 civilian non-institutional population) were outside the labor force entirely, versus 7.8 million (49.1%) in May 2000.”

This is a significant problem: our kids aren’t working.  Which means they are not learning at an early age how to work – building the soft and life skills that will serve them, their communities and our economy throughout their careers. We need to develop a different approach. This is why New Peoples Bank has accepted a role as partner with United Way of Southwest Virginia in its new Ignite Program. This initiative is providing our local business community with a significant opportunity: we can step forward to give our region’s high school students the critical chance, before leaving high school, to build work experience through the Ignite program.

Southwest Virginia’s employers can provide high school students with a work experience at their worksites through Ignite.  The students, who are still in school and in largely a learning mindset, will be more receptive to on-the-job teaching than older students who have finished school and are “done” learning.  Students at this stage actually will be receptive to learning professional skills from employer mentors. This is the life stage appropriate to building skills that will serve them through a lifetime.

Ignite Internships also will provide a viable option for a child who does not have a work mentor or role model at home.  Many young children in Southwest Virginia do not have parents in the labor force and many more are living in the same household as a grandparent.  These children often don’t experience the modeling and, just as important, the joy of having a job and responsibilities for serving customers and coworkers.

The students who participate in Ignite Internships already will have learned, through United Way’s partnership with the school systems, skills that apply to future employment, including communication, enthusiasm and attitude, teamwork, networking, problem solving, time management, critical thinking, and professionalism.  Ignite Internships will give these students the means to testing what they have learned in actual practice, with real bosses and colleagues.

I am grateful that United Way of Southwest Virginia will support employers as well. Ignite’s online platform matches employer opportunity postings to applications from capable students and accepts requests from schools for industry speakers. One of the supports I find most helpful is that United Way will co-host training for students, parents, and educational partners and offer professional development opportunities for employers who train and mentor students. Through Ignite and its other programs, United Way helps our region’s students by acting as a bridge between employers and schools.

I encourage my fellow CEOs and all community-minded employers to join me in supporting Ignite Internships, for the good of our students, the good of our workforce and the good of our region.  Let’s be employers who work with each other and our schools to generate learning opportunities that inspire young people to discover the joy of working and the fun in workplace collaboration. Let’s help our kids get ready to be the employees we need to build a robust economy in Virginia’s Great Southwest.

Read the other OTW articles
Learn about the Ignite Program

United Way of Southwest Virginia fights for the health, education and financial stability of every person in Southwest Virginia because they are the building blocks for a good quality of life.  Through an initiative-based cradle-to-career approach, United Way of Southwest Virginia is creating sustainable solutions to address the challenges facing tomorrow’s workforce. United Way convenes cross-sector partners to make an impact on the most complex problems in our region. Through collaboration with government, business, nonprofit and individuals, United Way innovates for positive, lasting social change.  With a footprint that covers nearly 20% of the state of Virginia, United Way of Southwest Virginia programs and initiatives serve the counties of Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Dickenson, Floyd, Giles, Grayson, Lee, Montgomery, Pulaski, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington, Wise, and Wythe, and the cities of Bristol, Galax, Norton, and Radford.