Episode 71 VR Workforce Studio Early is on time and on time is late
Soft skills needed for success in today’s workplace with Vocational Rehabilitation Superstar, Catherine Conlon and other top VR professionals
Announcer:Welcome to another episode as we open up the VR Workforce Studio to champion the courageous stories of vocational rehabilitation from individuals with disabilities.
Speaker 2: Listen to our amazing stories.
Speaker 3: Feel the joy and share in our inspiration.
Announcer: We’ll also meet the champions of business at industry.
Speaker 4: I can say beyond the shadow of a doubt that some of our best employees have disabilities.
Announcer:And hear from the VR professionals who have dedicated their lives and careers to helping individuals with disabilities go to work. Now, here’s the host of the VR Workforce Studio, Rick Sizemore.
Rick Sizemore:Welcome to episode 71 of the VR Workforce Studio podcast, live from the Manufacturing Skills Institute’s 8th Annual Workforce Solutions Symposium here at Liberty University in the brand new school of business. We’re so thrilled to be here. We have an all-star panel today as we focus on the importance of soft skills for employees.
Rick Sizemore:According to a recent article from the Society of Human Resource Managers, many employers are faced with something like a perfect storm. Soft skills which are needed to effectively communicate, problem solve, collaborate, and organize are becoming more important as the workforce evolves not only technologically, but from a social standpoint as well.
Rick Sizemore:The rub is that recruiters and employment experts report a soft skills gap, especially among young workers more accustomed to texting than talking. So we could be talking about my daughter here. And that forces organizations to hire many candidates who fall short on interpersonal abilities. So on today’s show, our panel is here to discuss key workforce readiness and soft skills that employees need to be successful in today’s environment, especially in manufacturing.
Rick Sizemore:So we’ll not only hear from experts who teach these skills, but those who are learning them as they obtain their workforce credentials and move into the talent pipeline and great companies here in Virginia and around the nation. So let’s meet our panelists.
Rick Sizemore:First of all, I’m delighted to welcome our guest commentator, Ms. Wheelchair Virginia, the talented and amazing, Vicki Lee Varner. Vicki joins us from the VR Workforce Studio B in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Welcome Vicki.
Vicki Varner:Thank you as always, Rick. I am super excited to be here and even more stoked to talk about the importance of soft skills that are necessary in any workplace.
Rick Sizemore:And you have no idea how happy I am to hear your voice. The internet was not my friend last night when we were testing, so it’s good to have you online, Vicki.
Rick Sizemore:From the Wilson Workforce Rehabilitation Center’s Manufacturing Technology Training Program. That program, by the way, voted VMA partner of the year just a couple of years ago. MTT or Manufacturing Technology Training instructor, Steve Sweeney. Welcome Steve.
Steve Sweeney:Happy to be here and just want to say that soft skills are critical to the importance and success of any employee.
Rick Sizemore: And thank you for operating our PowerPoint today. From the Valley 2 Virginia, federal grant administered through the Shenandoah Valley Workforce Development Board and helping great businesses all across Virginia set up apprenticeships, particularly helpful partner to the Wilson Workforce Rehabilitation Center, my friend Debby Hopkins.
Debby Hopkins:I’m glad to be here today.
Rick Sizemore:And last but not least, we’ll get the show started with our big inspiration showcase.
Rick Sizemore:Catherine Conlon, an absolute rock star in vocational rehabilitation is here to talk with us about soft skills. But Catherine, first of all, if you could give us a little background on yourself and how you wound up in Manufacturing Technology Training at Wilson.
Catherine Conlon: All right, Rick. Well, I graduated from E.C. Glass High School, which is here in Lynchburg in 2017 with honors and a career tech certificate. I went on to pursue machining under a scholarship at Central Virginia Community College. When that kind of fell through because the learning environment didn’t suit me, I still appreciate the hands on experience I got, I learned about WWRC. Wilson Workforce introduced me to the field of manufacturing technology through their evaluation program, and I pursued it to graduate today.
Rick Sizemore: Awesome. And congratulations. MS, MT1, OSHA 10, forklift certificates you have it all. So we’re excited about your experience at Wilson, and look forward to hearing more from you on today’s podcast.
Rick Sizemore: Steve Sweeney, could you give us just a little overview of the MTT Program at Wilson?
Steve Sweeney: So the first of all, helping our students prepare for, like Catherine, for working in manufacturing. And secondly, to work for and hopefully prepare for and successfully pass the Manufacturing Technician One credential, which is what we are trying to work for in our curriculum.
Steve Sweeney: Well, I’ll say that our curriculum has been approved by the Department of Labor as meeting the academic requirements for the Manufacturing Technician Apprenticeship, and we’ve had several now go into that apprenticeship, we’ve been very fortunate with that.
Rick Sizemore: Thank you Debby.
Steve Sweeney: Yes, thank you Debby. And just a few statistics you might be interested in. Since August of 2016, since our 16-week classes, we teach three per year and since August of 2016, we’ve had 66 students successfully complete the WWRC Manufacturing Technology Training Program. And our last year’s statistics, about two thirds were working in manufacturing and a they were averaging just under $15 an hour plus benefits.
Rick Sizemore: Woohoo! Congratulations. That’s exciting as we continue this conversation about how difficult it is to fill the employee talent pipelines at great companies around Virginia. So we’re going to focus on soft skills for employees today and do a countdown of the most important soft skills that employees place a high value on. Steve, you have a list that we’re going to go through. Where did the list come from and why is it important?
Steve Sweeney: Okay, so these are characteristics that we use throughout our training programs and other programs at WWRC. They originate in vocation evaluation. When a student’s evaluated, they use those same 13 characteristics that are used not only there, but also in our training department through all the training programs as well as in our pre-training programs. So they’ve been validated by our employers then we introduced them and confirmed them in our advisory committee meetings, and they have been shown to be a good marker, if you will, as far as whether a student is ready for employment or whether there are additional hurdles that need to be addressed before employment occurs.
Rick Sizemore: Awesome. Well, Vicki, we’re standing by, are you about ready to get us started with our top 10 list?
Vicki Varner:Yes sir. So number 10 is personal presentation.
Rick Sizemore: You mean like how long it takes you to do your hair and makeup?
Vicki Varner:Rick, you specifically promised if I would do this, you wouldn’t make any beauty or drama queen comments. So can you just ask Catherine the question already?
Rick Sizemore: Okay. Okay. Okay. Thank you very much, Vicki Leigh. Catherine, what have you learned about personal presentation, why it’s so important?
Catherine Conlon:Personal presentation is crucial to any job. It’s how you present yourself, it’s your attitude, the way you behave, and also just how you appear to be. I think it’s crucial because there’s always a reason to give a good first impression and you only have once to give a first impression.
Rick Sizemore: Only one time, only one time.
Vicki Varner:Number nine, work, energy, and stamina.
Rick Sizemore:Okay, Steve, we’ll turn to you. Tell us about work, energy, and stamina. How do you teach it? And more importantly, how do you know the students who are exiting your program have it?
Steve Sweeney: Well, certainly talk about this. So one of the things … And we try to demonstrate that in the class. So a couple of things here. First of all, my students, I have a couple here now and they’ll remember I would say, “We’re not good actors generally speaking. If we care, it shows. If we don’t care, it shows. If we are trying to do what we need to do and the energy and put forth the effort to do it, it shows.” And so I remember one time I had a student that I took out my camera and I recorded him doing something and then I showed it to him and then we deleted together because the purpose was simply to use as a learning tool. And he said, “Wow! I was going slow, wasn’t I? Yeah, and everybody saw that including you.” So that’s the point. You want to have that awareness to begin with. The other thing is you want to provide opportunities where they can see what is inappropriate, productive, and so forth. We have an activity where they can box things in a group and so as they do so, I’ve had students first of all realize, “Oh, I have two hands, not just one.” So that doubles their productivity by using both hands. Then the second thing is they not only do that, but then they see, “Well, gee, my coworker, he’s doing it twice as fast as I am. I guess I should speed up.” And so now they’re doing it four times as fast as they originally and it’s getting just an awareness and attitude.
Rick Sizemore: And a little positive peer pressure to boot.
Vicki Varner:Number eight, care with materials and property. Does this mean kind of like how many times a day Rick Sizemore loses his cellphone?
Rick Sizemore:I’m glad I have that app where I have a tile to help me find my phone. and I think you’re the same way, Vicki. But I’m glad you’re with us this morning …
Rick Sizemore: … and didn’t need your cellphone. So Catherine, what have you learned about taking care of your materials and property?
Catherine Conlon:Well in class, every day I’m working hard and usually I’m working on the laser engraver. And so I like to think that every single project I make, whether it’s for another person or someone on my family, I take into personal account that I’m giving it to them and showing them how much quality of work I can give them. For example, some of my projects are laid out here. I will start off by choosing or creating a design, then I will upload it to the computer, runs schematics, change the parameters, choose a piece of stock, run some dry runs. And when I print the final piece and take it over to production assembly, I make sure that I am satisfied with it along with the customer. All the while working closely with them to make sure that they are satisfied with the final piece.
Rick Sizemore:That’s awesome.
Vicki Varner:Number seven, meets work schedules.
Rick Sizemore:Okay. The all important meeting work schedules. Steve, what do you have to say about that?
Steve Sweeney: So when we talk about work schedules, so what we emphasize, we have two words, productivity and speed. And so the significance of this is that we remind the people that you’re not just getting paid to show up for work, you’re getting paid to get the work done and to not only get it done, but also get it done in the time that it’s allowed. And what this means is that if your coworker is sick and not able to make it, and you still are supposed to make a thousand widgets every hour in order for you to meet your productivity rate, why that’s important? Is so that you meet your production rate. And so that allows the company to be healthy. And so that’s why they paid you, and that’s why you’re there. So if there’s only two of you instead of three of you, and you’re still supposed to do that thousand per hour, that’s what’s required. And so to have that attitude and that awareness and that understanding, what is the rate of return and so forth, is that it’s nice, people pay you, but they pay you for a reason.
Rick Sizemore: All of these soft skills that we’re talking about will be included in the show notes at vrworkforcestudio.com along with the link to that article that we referred to earlier, and the contact information for all of our guests. So you’ll be able to find that at vrworkforcestudio.com.
Vicki Varner:Number six, tolerance and work persistence.
Rick Sizemore: So Debby, you work with pre-apprentices, what do you tell them about work tolerance and persistence?
Debby Hopkins: Well, when you think of a job as a relationship, think of your own relationships, how tolerant do you need to be of each other? What do you need to learn to make someone happy? How do you get a relationship to be successful? You have to have that mindset in employment. So you’re trying to understand yourself, be tolerant of making mistakes, be tolerant of learning, be tolerant and be persistent. Be tolerant with others who may not have the same personality or may not communicate as well with you as you would like. And most of all, to be persistent.
Debby Hopkins: Someone once told me, an early mentor, that it’s the last 5% that makes the real difference between being successful or failing. And to be persistent and keep on, get that criticism, get the advice, and just keep pursuing competency in that job and in a good relationship with your employer and you’ll be successful.
Rick Sizemore: Great. Well, thank you so much.
Vicki Varner:Number five, initiative and dependability.
Rick Sizemore:Initiative and dependability. Steve, now, the closer we get down to number one on the soft skills, the more subjective they seem to become. How do you teach initiative and dependability?
Steve Sweeney: So again, most of this is just an awareness, and so I’ve had people before in local school systems say, “How come you teach … What do you teach with soft skills that’s different than what we teach?” And we look at the behavioral characteristics and there are a lot of similarities between the two. The difference I think is the application and the emphasis that we put into it, and that’s what we do here. Real simple, I say for initiative and dependability, do you do what you need to do without being told first? And do you do what you said you were going to do? It’s pretty simple. Just get it done. And so we do this by hopefully obtaining what we call a better judgment. So how do you teach judgment? I’ve been teaching for almost 37 years, and so the best way I know to teach judgment is by example, by example, by example, doing role play, getting into it. This is what this is, this is where you are. This happens, what do you do? Why do you do that? Here’s how it is. I’ve had students say, “Well that’s stupid.” Well, maybe you think it’s stupid, but here’s the consequence if you don’t do it that way. And so it’s just simply an awareness as much as anything.
Rick Sizemore:Well, a story about the classroom next door to MTT’s production and assembly. And they have a rule. If there isn’t immediate task sitting right in front of you, there is a broom. And so they do a lot of assembly and the job is … You can always sweep the floor if there isn’t a job sitting there, waiting on you at that exact moment.
Vicki Varner:Soft skill number four is following instructions.
Rick Sizemore: Oh, wow! Following instructions. Catherine, it’s all on you now. Tell us about following instructions and what you’ve learned about why that’s so important.
Catherine Conlon:Following instructions is crucial to every single project. In some of the fields I have worked with or explored, particularly machining, you must follow instructions to a T. If you’re programming a code for a computer, numerical control machine, or CNC, then you must read every single line and every single word crucially and critically. If you don’t and you mess up one word, one number, or one letter, you are going to be stuck there going through every single line to try to find that mistake. That’s why instructions are critical to the field of manufacturing.
Rick Sizemore:You are doing such an awesome job of describing these skills. I really hope that this podcast will be repeated many times for people who just want a good review of a list of skills that they need to focus on. It’s obvious you can’t produce the quality work that you have produced and brought here as a demonstration without that attention to detail in doing what you do. So we certainly appreciate that very much.
Vicki Varner:Our countdown continues with number three and yes, you can probably guess this is close to the top of the list because anytime you ask anyone what’s one of the top complaints about any workplace, they usually say … Okay, listeners and those in our live audience, what do you think it is?
Rick Sizemore: Number one problem.
Sound Effect: Computer Generated Communication Speech
Vicki Varner: Communication.
Rick Sizemore: Communication, communication, communication.
Vicki Varner:And just for fun, let’s make this a true double daily double, Rick. Communication and interpersonal skills.
Rick Sizemore:Communication and interpersonal skills, the double daily devil from Vicki Varner. Debby, I’ll bet you’ve heard this sentiment through the years, not only as a V2V coordinator and a key figure at the Workforce Board, but used to be an HR director. So what is your list of top suggestions for developing this skill at work, not only as employees, but what can management do to facilitate communications and interpersonal relations among their team members?
Debby Hopkins:Well, you absolutely have that right. Most of my career was in HR and the number one complaint really involved communication or interpersonal skills would still come back to communication. And from a management standpoint, it was being certain that there was clarity of what you expect. Because often people are trying to give you what they think you expect and you haven’t been clear about exactly what it is that you expect. So that comes back to managers and the company. What about the individuals? Individuals need to think about how we were designed. We are designed with two ears and one mouth and should use them accordingly. So listening with our two ears is extremely important. To listen, listen to be understood, listen to understand, communicate to be understood. And again, back to the absolute clarity and expectations. Oftentimes in a workplace there’s so much information that is not essential. It’s gossip. And if you’ve got critical information coming, you need to stay on that critical information and ignore the gossip. So knowing what to listen to and what to respond to and don’t worry about what everybody else is doing. You worry about what you’re doing. And if you know the rule is this, then you do this, even if you see five people doing something else back to Catherine’s instructions. But absolutely good communications is typically an important factor in leadership, whether you’re leading your company or leading your line or just leading yourself as an employee on the job.
Vicki Varner:Number two, and man, this is one I know Rick gets in trouble with, response to supervision.
Rick Sizemore: And you don’t?
Vicki Varner:Just ask the question.
Rick Sizemore: Well, we’re going to start with Catherine, can you describe what this skill looks like when it’s fully developed?
Catherine Conlon:In practice, response to supervision can be seen through active listening and understanding. If given a task by your supervisor, choose to follow up with them to clarify anything and everything that the task is about, then you should complete the task accordingly. That way there are no misunderstandings.
Rick Sizemore: Steve, any follow up to that?
Steve Sweeney: So my suggestion whenever working with supervision, and we all have bosses, we all have people report to, and so I suggest to my students, I say, “Do your goals match those of your supervisor? If they don’t, you’re probably not going to have success.” Another way to look at that is if your supervisor was standing right beside you, would they be happy with what you’re doing? If they are, that’s fine. If not, you probably need to change what you’re doing. And so if you can keep those things in mind, I think that will help as far as your success and opportunities to do, am I doing what my boss really wants me to do?
Vicki Varner:All right, Rick, we are in the home stretch and this is all about getting to work on time. Something I personally don’t think you should comment on.
Rick Sizemore:We will trust our panelist for that, Vicki Lee.
Vicki Varner:Number one is attendance and punctuality. Rick, I absolutely loved your story about Fort Lee.
Rick Sizemore: Well, I’ll tell quickly a story about Fort Lee. One of our graduates was fortunate enough to get a job down in Fort Lee, the military base that’s a logistics sites, that’s where a lot of people check in. That’s where my son reported to for his first assignment when he joined the army. And this kid got a job, this young man got a job in supply. And the office warehouse opened every morning at 7:00, he was there at 6:45, well, the supervisor, Old Bill comes walking up the hallway about five minutes til the shop opens with a big key hook and all the keys, and he said, “Don’t you realize we don’t open till 7:00?” And the kid said, “Well, yeah, I do.” So second day, same thing happens. He comes along about five minutes till 7:00, the kid’s been sitting there for all this time. He says, “You know we don’t open till 7:00 o’clock.” He said, “I got it.” Rick Sizemore: So the next day, same thing, Old Bill comes kind of meandering up the hallway just right before time and he said, “I thought I told you, we don’t open till 7:00 o’clock.” He said, “Well, I learned at Wilson Workforce, if you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late.” Well, Bill got all excited, got inspired and called the DRS office and said, “You know what? I want you to send me every student you’ve got that goes through that program because they have the most fundamental skill we need, which is showing up and being on time.”
Rick Sizemore: So Steve, it’s kind of cut and dry, but what’s your perspective on showing up and being on time, punctuality?
Steve Sweeney: You’re right there. And just from personal experience as well as others. I’ve had employees in the past when I was a manager who they were wonderful, they were great at what they did, but they weren’t there on a regular basis. And so it reminds me, we had a plant manager at a recent advisor committee meeting, he said, he tells his employees the best ability to have is availability. And so that’s the reality is that if you’re not there, it doesn’t matter how good you are. It doesn’t matter what a good job you do, it doesn’t matter how well you get along with others, it doesn’t matter how well you know the products or the equipment. If you aren’t there, you can’t help.
Vicki Varner:Rick, you know this is a great list, but it really wouldn’t be complete without some of the no-brainers. Attention to task and concentration, attention to detail and quality of work, and safety awareness and practices.
Rick Sizemore: Before we finish up today, I’d like to ask Debby if she has any closing reflections on Valley 2 Virginia initiative, and how these skills lead to powerful opportunities for apprenticeships.
Debby Hopkins: Absolutely. It is a very different environment now than it was five years ago, 10 years ago certainly for employers and for individuals who are are seeking jobs. Companies have to reach outside their comfort zone and start looking at less experienced, perhaps younger, people with disabilities, people who are coming from justice. Companies need to change and are trying hard to change the way that they recruit, the way that they hire, what their outreach is, how they train, how they coach, how they mentor, on the job training.
Debby Hopkins:This creates a fantastic opportunity for pre-apprenticeship because individuals like the Wilson Workforce Center, as you can see here with Caroline, just absolutely fantastic students coming out of that who are taught what the company will expect, what the job will entail, and what they should show, and demonstrate on the job to the companies who now are opening up who they will accept, how they will hire. So the factors in that; on the job learning, mentoring are the very elements of apprenticeship.
Rick Sizemore: I’d like to thank of Vicki Lee Varner for being online and helping us out with the podcast today. Vicki, wrap things up for us with your platform, According to Vicki.
Vicki Varner:Well, honestly, this list was an amazing reflection on the skills necessary to work successfully in the workplace. As Ms. Wheelchair Virginia, I can honestly say that these 10 soft skills are needed without discrimination, whether you have a disability or not. But please do not be fooled because most people with disabilities exemplify these skills, making them not only perfect, but able to take the workforce on.
Vicki Varner:It was amazing to be here and hopefully everybody was able to take some notes on how important these skills are. Let’s not only crush these skills, let us teach them to others as well, making for a better environment overall. Thank you Rick for letting me be here.
Rick Sizemore: Absolutely, and that’s the platform, According to Vicki. It’s time for our National Clearinghouse update with Cherie Takemoto. Welcome Cherie.
Cherie Takemoto:Hi. How are you doing today?
Rick Sizemore: Doing great. What did you think of Catherine’s interview?
Cherie Takemoto:I thought it was wonderful and I’m so glad that you’re covering the topic of soft skills. I remember when I was on the State Rehab Council and they were talking about who is eligible for VR services, basically anybody with a significant disability who is employable, I was a little skeptical and I said, “Well what do you mean anybody with a disability who’s employable?” And one of the people who had a long history in VR said, “I can get a job for anybody regardless of the disability, as long as they have the soft skills to keep a job.”
Rick Sizemore: That is so awesome. Soft skills are what we’re all focused on today. What do you have for us in the Clearinghouse?
Cherie Takemoto:Okay. From our favorite folks at the Wintac, I have a link to their workplace readiness training to develop social skills and independent living. And they do a nice job of going over many of the soft skills that you covered in today’s program.
Cherie Takemoto:Second, I have from National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT), using soft skills training program to increase opportunities for competitive integrated employment for students with disabilities. Long way of saying that they looked at the research to practice aspects of soft skills.
Rick Sizemore:Oh, really important stuff.
Cherie Takemoto:Yes. And then a couple of tidbits. One is a curriculum from the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the Department of Labor, and it has a catchy title, Skills to Pay the Bills Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success. And then the second is from the American Foundation for the Blind and its workplace readiness training to develop social skills and independent living. And of course these soft skills are good for employment, but they’re also great for independent living.
Rick Sizemore: How are you going to use them in your life?
Cherie Takemoto:Well, I love the part where the WWRC said, “If you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late.” And I’m going to share that with my husband because he makes it a point of being exactly on time or a couple of minutes late, and I’m just going to say, “Nope, nope, nope, you’re late.”
Rick Sizemore: You’re awesome, Cherie. Cherie Takemoto directs our National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials.
Rick Sizemore: Well, we hope you’ve enjoyed today’s live podcast from Liberty University. These podcasts are made possible by the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center Foundation and our partners in podcasting. The foundation works tirelessly to help people with disabilities and to support vocational rehabilitation. Hey, if you enjoy what we’re doing, we’d absolutely love to hear from you, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can visit the foundation’s website at wwrcf.org. Until next time, I’m Rick Sizemore, hoping you will help us share the sparks that ignite vocational rehabilitation.
Announcer: We certainly thank all of our partners in podcasting who made this episode possible. Aladdin Foods, Career Pathways for Individuals with Disabilities, Community Foundation of the Central Blue Ridge, The Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation, CVS Health, Dominion Energy, The Hershey Company, The Jessie Ball duPont Fund, United Bank, The Virginia Manufacturers Association, and Wells Fargo.