‘Hire’ learning: Queen Creek educators, business community discuss programs to prepare students for the workforce

Eye-contact. A resume without grammatical and spelling errors. Focus. Dressing properly.

People who hire employees call these “soft skills,” and they wish more job applicants had them.

“(They’re wearing) jeans, baseball caps. It’s like they’re going to attend a football game. They don’t seem to know the skills they need for a job interview,” Elizabeth Swanson, membership coordinator for Sam’s Club, 2621 S. Market St. in Gilbert, said during an interview Sept. 3.

Ms. Swanson was one of about 50 area educators, businesspeople and community leaders who participated in an education summit presented Sept. 3 by the Queen Creek Chamber of Commerce. The Gilbert Sam’s Club hires people from across the far east Valley for its staff of about 120 full- and part-time employees, who include Queen Creek and San Tan Valley residents, Ms. Swanson said.

She said she interviews 15-20 applicants a month and continues to be surprised at how unprepared and relaxed some younger job applicants — those just out of high school or in their early 20s — can be. Many are unaware texting and glancing at one’s cell phone during a job interview are no-no’s.

“It’s mind-boggling,” she said.

The lack or preparedness on the part of the applicants was one reason Ms. Swanson attended the summit. Its goal was to pinpoint which skills local businesspeople require of younger job candidates and create school programs that can teach high school and college graduates those skills, chamber President/CEO Chris Clark said during an earlier interview.

“We hope to create actionable steps to take and potentially find new programs that can be created to help get students into the workplace and teach the skills that will get them hired right away,” he said. “Perhaps identify new uses for resources at the schools.”

The need for a summit, in part, came out of a survey the chamber conducted with its members. Respondents noted they often had to interview many applicants before finding one with the skills needed to perform a job.

The same concerns were voiced during discussions conducted during meetings of the Queen Creek Economic Development department and the chamber’s education committee, he said.

“We’re finding students are not very well-prepared. They don’t have a true understanding of what it’s like to work at a job,” Charles Flanagan, director of community partnerships at Rio Salado College, told attendees.

Rio Salado College donated the use of one its campuses, Communiversity at Queen Creek, 21740 S. Ellsworth Road in downtown Queen Creek, for the summit.

By working collaboratively, educators and businesspeople can create a sustainable workforce of young adults who will continue to live, work and raise their family in Queen Creek, Mr. Flanagan said.

Summit attendees were split into eight groups comprising representatives from schools, businesses and the community-at-large. Each group then selected one of five questions to answer. The questions were:

•How do we better prepare our students to enter the workforce and at what age should we begin these programs?

•What can we do to get the students more “real work” experience?

•How do we help kids develop realistic expectations of work life, become responsible employees and develop the interpersonal skills needed to be successful team members and provide quality customer service? How do we engage the parents in this process?

•How can we prepare students to successfully transition to college so they can compete at a high level and ultimately be successful in the workplace?

•What action steps do we take from these discussions so they become lasting initiatives that adapt to current and future needs?

The groups had about 45 minutes to address the issues raised in their question and to formulate possible solutions. A member of each group then announced the results of their discussion to their fellow attendees.

To better prepare students to enter the workforce, suggestions included:

•Start incorporating soft skills in elementary school. Have teachers shake hands and make eye contact with students when they enter a classroom. Expand that concept on a community level and have parents, educators and businesspeople lead by example and shake hands and greet spectators attending a football game or other event.

•Have a career-related day regularly at school. It could include a professional dress day where students wear what they believe is acceptable work attire and educate them about what is and is not acceptable.

•Include resume-writing in a writing class and have a businessperson review the resumes and comment on what he or she is looking for in a submission.

To help the initiatives discussed at the summit adapt to the needs of the community, participants suggested:

•Having the right people lead the program. The right people would include those with a vested interest in having the program succeed, such as chamber members, educators, elected officials and parents.

•Identify which soft skills need to be addressed and make sure schools and families are teaching them to students.

•Collect data to track which programs are working.

•Determine who will take leadership of the overall concept of conducting future discussion groups.

To better prepare students to transition from high school to college, suggestions included:

•Develop partnerships and mentorships with businesses to help show students career paths they might take within those industries.

•Have businesses that already have such programs in place share these concepts for others to adapt to their industry.

The programs can be as small as assigning a student the responsibility of being a classroom greeter, Mr. Flanagan said.

He said he visited Canyon State Academy, a school for at-risk and disadvantaged youth at 20061 E. Rittenhouse Road in Queen Creek. He said he was greeted by designated student, who shook his hand and answered his questions.

“This student had this fabulous opportunity to interact with someone in a professional setting and explain what a class was doing. It gave them some great skills,” Mr. Flanagan said.

Participating in such programs can help provide a seamless transition between high school and college, Dr. Cort Monroe, assistant superintendent of student learning for the Queen Creek Unified School District, said.

Dr. Monroe’s two daughters have benefited from their participation in the Dignity Health East Valley Summer Volunteen Program, he said.

The elite program is open to high school students ages 14-18, Valerie Christopher, the program’s senior coordinator, said during a phone interview.

Participants complete 40 hours of volunteer service during which they can receive hands-on experience in one of 50 different service areas at either Mercy Gilbert Medical Center, 3555 S. Val Vista Drive in Gilbert, or Chandler Regional Medical Center, 1955 W. Frye Road in Chandler, she said.

They must also attend at least three educational sessions during their summer session but most students attend more, Ms. Christopher said.

Applicants must possess a minimum 3.5 GPA. They have two weeks during which they can apply online, she said. Candidates must then go through an extensive interview process, and only about one in four are selected, she said. Last year, about 300 students applied for the program.

Once selected, they are grandfathered in to the program and may continue it throughout high school, she said.

Rudy Apodaca, vice president of operations at Dignity Health Mercy Gilbert, said schools are welcome to contact him to discuss the creation of programs that could provide students with specific skill sets. He said the medical center designed a bio-science program after representatives from Campo Verde High School, 3870 S. Quartz St. in Gilbert, asked for one.

Such mentorship programs could introduce students to a whole new world of possibilities, Barbara Khalsa, associate dean of instruction and community development for Rio Salado College, said during her group’s discussion.

“Young people don’t know what their talents are so to walk through a hospital and have people explain what all the positions are and what skills you need to perform that job is an invaluable experience,” she said.

For more information on future education summits, call Mr. Clark at 480-888-1709 or e-mail him at chris@queencreekchamber.com.

The Queen Creek Chamber of Commerce is at 22246 S. Ellsworth Road in Queen Creek.

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