The soft skills that make Shaquilla just as employable as Shannon
Editor’s Note: Some six million 18 to 24-year-old inner city high school grads are neither employed or in school. A program called Year Up, which Making Sen$e first profiled in 2008, is trying to change those statistics by tackling what they call “the opportunity divide.” Participants receive half a year’s training, during which they’re paid, and then a paid internship for the next six months designed as a gateway to a secure, well-paying job.
Several years out of the crash of 2008, Making Sen$e wanted to catch up with Year Up to see how their students had fared in one of the toughest job markets. Year Up has doubled in size since our first story, with programs in 12 cities now, and the summer after the crash, they placed all of their students in paid internships.
For this latest story, Paul Solman sat down with two current Year Up students to hear about their road to the program, where they hope to go and how Year Up is making the difference.
Daniel Alexandre’s parents came to the United States in the 1980s from Haiti, where his father had been a police officer and his mother a nurse. In America, they became bus drivers. As the last of their six children, there were fewer resources available to Daniel and he couldn’t depend on his struggling parents or his older siblings, newly married, to help him. He currently lives alone. “I still have and still love my family,” he told us. “It’s just that if they can’t help me, they can’t help me. So I’ve got to do the best that I can to help myself.”
Daniel, age 23, wanted to go to college – and was accepted. “I was the most excited person in the world,” he said. But the Berklee College of Music cost more than he thought, and he couldn’t find anyone to co-sign on a loan with him because of his family’s blotched credit history. Daniel’s taken some classes at local community colleges, but it wasn’t what he was passionate about. He’s worked at Shaw’s supermarket, and aside from Year Up, he plays music at churches and side venues to make money. He’s hopeful he’ll find a secure second job after graduating from Year Up.
As a two-year-old, Shaquilla Boyce came to the United States from Barbados with her mother, who, she said, has worked any job she can. But for her daughter, Shaquilla’s mom stressed the importance of education. “If I’m in school,” Shaquilla said, “I feel better: When I’m learning, I’m doing my part.”
But at age 21, she’s not in college either. She wanted to take a year off after high school to save for her expenses. But after a year, then two, then three, she couldn’t get a job. She’s now in Year Up, interning at the Boston Federal Reserve in their information technology department. After it ends in July, she’d eventually like to try for dual degrees in artificial intelligence and software engineering
Both Daniel and Shaquilla have struggled with the vicious cycle of needing to work before they can study, but then not being able to find a good enough job. In a world where an African-American name and a low-income zip code can be enough to turn off some employers, students in Year Up are learning how to make employers value them for who they are: they’re learning the hard skills to get them jobs, but even more importantly, the soft skills to get them in the door: eye contact, a firm handshake and how to address potential employers. In the following extended conversation with Paul Solman, Shaquilla and Daniel speak candidly about the unemployment crisis facing their peers and why their soft skills are what set them apart. And for more of their conversation with Paul, watch Monday night’s Making Sen$e segment below:
— Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor
Paul Solman: Why is it that so many people roughly your age are not working?
Daniel Alexandre: There’s a lot of different factors. I don’t think we really know how to value them as someone who we might need. For example, if I were a company, I might not hire that individual because I don’t see potential there [because] they dropped out, they’ve given up on themselves; so why should I believe in them? That’s what I’m seeing going on.
Shaquilla Boyce: I think that it starts younger. It’s the support system. If you don’t have it growing up, there’s no reason to continue; there’s no reason to graduate because you don’t know what’s next. It’s educating people and helping people from early on to learn that you do need a diploma to get a job. A lot of people don’t know that.
Paul Solman: What does it mean to not know that? For those in the audience who took going to school and getting a college degree for granted, it’s hard to imagine what’s going through the mind of somebody who doesn’t see that as the obvious route.
Daniel Alexandre: From my experience, my parents came here focused on needing to make money to provide for our family. So what was emphasized growing up was always getting a good job and doing the best that you can at that job to provide for your family. That was the mantra, where the job becomes more important to you than going to school.
Shaquilla Boyce: It’s time versus money. You have the pressure to provide now, and if you spend eight hours in school, there are only, let’s say, five hours left in the day; that’s not enough. It doesn’t make up what you could have made if you did a full eight hours of work instead of school.
Paul Solman: But most of the people your age from your ethnic background aren’t working.
Shaquilla Boyce: It’s finding a job. It’s the skills and it’s presenting yourself in a way that someone will say, “I’m gonna take a chance on you,” then finding a company or an organization to do that. A lot of people may have skills — they know things, they’re smart — but there’s no way they can say, “This is what I can do; Give me that chance.” They don’t know how.
Paul Solman: Do you talk to your friends and say, “Hey, you need to go to school in order to get any kind of decent job”?
Daniel Alexandre: What’s relevant around you becomes your mindset as well. If you’re not around the type of people who are supporting you and pushing you to go to school, then it’s going to be very hard for you to do so. In certain communities, it’s really important to go to school. It’s just the norm. But when you see so many people before you getting the door to the idea of college shut on them, that doesn’t even make sense to you. The standard has been brought down even before you have to meet it.
A lot of my friends have role models who are selling drugs or doing whatever else they can to make money. So when I come and say, “Hey, you have to go to school to make a decent amount of money,” their society says, “Not necessarily, there are other ways that you can make money where I don’t have to go to school.” School is this place that is seen to some people as where they’re just going to keep testing me and telling me that I can’t make it. I’m going fail all of these tests. I don’t want to be somewhere that’s constantly telling me that I’m not enough. So I’d rather go to where I’m supported, and often times, you’re supported by the people who shouldn’t be where they are to begin with.
Shaquilla Boyce: For me it’s a little bit different. I went to a high school where college was really heavily enforced. I’ve had numerous friends who have gone to private four-year schools and then one year in say, “I can’t afford this,” and then go to a junior college. Then they say they have to work and can’t go to school at all. It’s accessibility in a way. It’s not that college is not the norm; it’s just how you get there and how you’re able to maintain it.
What’s in a name?
Paul Solman: Shaquilla, you’re 21 — pretty young. So in your limited experience, is the problem of young inner city high school grads not finding jobs and not going to college getting worse?
Shaquilla Boyce: Yes, I think so. Getting a retail job is the goal now. Before Year Up, I applied to jobs in an office setting, but I don’t have any experience. So then I applied to retail because that’s what’ll take me, but it’s a dead end. The job is not paying you enough to go to school, and then you need to work more, so you can’t go to school.
I sat jobless for two and half years before I decided, okay, something has to give. I went on probably over 40 interviews — just secretarial jobs, some retail things and a little data entry, but I couldn’t get anything.
Paul Solman: But you’re obviously an articulate person. It’s not a question of that you couldn’t do the jobs?
Shaquilla Boyce: It’s the “you only have a high school diploma” reaction. They’re looking for someone who has a degree or is in college. No one was willing to say, I’ll take that chance on you.
Daniel Alexandre: One of the things that they teach us here at Year Up is how to write a resume to yield a positive result, to maybe even get an interview. They highlight that most employers don’t spend more than 10 to 15 seconds looking at a resume.
So let’s consider Shaquilla. As an employer, you see Shaquilla from Dorchester who doesn’t have a college degree. That just chopped down my 15 seconds of scanning this resume to zero. I’m going to pass it over because society has told me that people with that kind of name from those kinds of areas, from that type of background — they’re not going to do much. They’re probably going to come late to work; there’s just a whole mountain of perceptions that we have to jump over to even be considered in some of these work spaces.
Shaquilla Boyce: People hear my name before they see me, and they have a pre-conceived notion. So I’ve worked my entire life to get away from that image because I want to make it and I won’t let someone hinder me based on a name.
Paul Solman: And so the name Shaquilla says African-American, from a family that’s not adopting the usual norms of the society? It’s a real handicap?
Shaquilla Boyce: When I applied to jobs — my middle name is Shannon — I would put Shannon instead of Shaquilla and I got more call backs from before.
Paul Solman: Holy smokes.
Daniel Alexandre:Well for me, I grew up really having a passion for poetry, so I was always reading. I was always watching poets, and I learned how to use my words to not only say what I want to say, but also make you feel the way I want you to feel with my words. I’ve learned to code switch, which they teach us here at Year Up. I’ve learned how to present myself in a way that would make someone want to talk to me longer or maybe even consider what I have to say.
Paul Solman: And that comes across, I have to tell you, immediately when you start talking.
Daniel Alexandre: I appreciate that. You know, it’s something that I didn’t spend much time working on; it just became who I was because I was always reading.
But when I’m with my friends, and there goes that code switching again, they don’t always have that same affinity with words that I do. They might just want to say, “Hey, let’s hang out, let’s chill,” and that’s totally fine, that’s where they’re comfortable, but they don’t know that that has to be turned off when you go into an interview, when you’re trying to present yourself. A lot of times my friends have the mentality of “take me who I am,” and if you don’t like me then tough luck. But you almost have to make people want to like you before they can really learn to like you. You have to leap over all of those mountains of negative perceptions and then really let them see who you are and see the capabilities that you have.
Paul Solman: So here at Year Up, they’re showing you the value of professionalism, but just meeting you, I would’ve thought you’re the last guy in the world who needs to polish his self-presentation skills.
Daniel Alexandre: As it remains, before you meet me, you’re looking at my resume, you’re looking at where I’ve come from and what I’ve accomplished. And what I’ve accomplished is only going to be what my family, what my surrounding, what my support system has pushed me to accomplish.
Paul Solman: No, I could see how reading your resume I would be distinctly unimpressed, but once I’m meeting you, I’d have to say, wait, this is a serious guy.
Daniel Alexandre: Because I’ve understood the value of breaking down negative perceptions. I learned it on my own, but here is an organization of people higher than myself pouring that into individuals.
Paul Solman: And you were just saying before we got on camera, you were learning double entry bookkeeping today.
Daniel Alexandre: Yeah that’s amazing to me — that’s something that I could’ve never foreseen myself doing before, without Year Up.
Is Year Up the only hope?
Paul Solman: So if things are getting worse, is this kind of institution the answer?
Daniel Alexandre: The problem is unemployment, and that these people don’t have the soft skills or the hard skills to get these kinds of jobs. So what can we do to help them? How about we give them 18 college credits so that they have some sort of education history on their resume. Let’s give them that support system they wouldn’t have had otherwise. I have an adviser, and I’m going to be getting a tutor soon. Now three people are invested in my time and in my life and in my education to push me to be something that I never thought I could be. Where else am I going to find that?
School isn’t the only answer, but a support system is also an answer because how many people graduate from college and still find themselves unemployed with degrees? You need people who are in positions that you want to be in to invest in you.
Paul Solman: But is that really going to deliver everyone from the downward spiral of not getting the job, and therefore not getting the education, and therefore not getting the job?
Shaquilla Boyce: It’ll deliver the people who want it. I have a mentor, I have an adviser, I have a mentor at the Fed and another adviser. My adviser checks on me more than some of my friends do just to say, “How are you, do you need anything, do you need to talk, what’s different, what’s going on?” My mentor sat me down and said, “I’m giving you three weeks to get your college applications in three weeks,” and I said, “Okay, three weeks it is.”
It takes a lot of faith to look at someone who currently isn’t displaying their full potential and say, “If I invest my time in you, you’re going to become that.” If you also invest your time in yourself, if there’s this two-way relationship, you will become that great thing.
Paul Solman: What percentage of your friends, if trusted that way and invested in, could become successful members of society?
Daniel Alexandre: I’d say 100 percent of my friends, if trusted and invested in a way that they’ve never been invested in before.
Shaquilla Boyce: I agree, I would say 100 percent. It’s about not letting them give up when they feel like they can’t do something. They need someone to say, “Hold on, I’m here, let’s work through it together.”
Paul Solman: Is there a danger that by picking people who are as articulate and thoughtful as you two guys are that you will be taken out of your communities and the people who remain will be in even worse shape because they don’t have you goading them to achieve more than they have?
Shaquilla Boyce: I don’t think so. No matter where I go, I can set that stage to say, this is where I came from, this is what I’ve done. It’s really up to me to say that I’m going to keep my hand in the community and inspire other people and help other people and give them the same support that I’ve gotten the whole time.
The immigrant story
Paul Solman: Is there something different about immigrants from people of color who were born here? Because it’s striking that you, Shaquilla, are from Barbados and you, Daniel, are from Haiti.
Shaquilla Boyce:When I got older, I worked at Walgreen’s steady for three years. It just keeps going – you take your books, study, you have to keep, you have to do both. And I think that monetary problems — everyone has them — but I think as an immigrant family you find them more in abundance. But it’s always been that as long as I’m willing to try, there’s someone behind me willing to help. My mom heard about Year Up on the radio on the last day to apply and called me up and said, “Apply right now, go ahead!”
Immigrant families come with the mentality that you come here to do better. Most of the time you move here as a family, so you really have to internally get together and find a way to do it. A lot of other problems come in when immigrant families don’t know there might be this program you can get your child into — this program that would help them with math, science, English — they don’t know. So it’s kind of always trying to do it on your own.
Daniel Alexandre: First, it’s the language barrier, and after you finally get over that hump, then there’s the accent that you’ve got to get rid of just so that people can take you at face value and really see who you are.
Paul Solman talked to inner-city youth last summer about their struggles to find employment.