What employers really want: Skills get you hired; behavior gets you fired

BY Gerald Chertavian  June 24, 2014 at 4:09 PM EDT
Year Up, a job program for inner city youth, teaches the hard skills that employers are looking for -- and the soft skills to keep young adults in their jobs. NewsHour still image.

Year Up, a job program for inner city youth, teaches the hard skills that employers are looking for — and the soft skills to keep young adults in their jobs. NewsHour still image.

Editor’s Note: In 2008, Paul Solman first visited Year Up, where inner city young adults are paid to participate in a six-month training program and then a paid internship. Revisiting Year Up this spring, we heard from two Year Up students – Shaquilla Boyce and Daniel Alexandre – whose soft skills (eye contact and a firm handshake, for example) make the hard skills they’re learning at Year Up all the more marketable. As Year Up founder and CEO Gerald Chertavian told us, companies “hire for skill and fire for behavior.”

We spoke to Chertavian earlier this year when April’s unemployment number plunged to a five-and-a-half year low. But the unemployment rate remained much higher for the demographics Year Up serves. Over 12 percent of 16-to-24-year-olds not in school and looking for work were unemployed. For those with no more than a high school degree, the rate was 16.1 percent, and for black young adults, a key Year Up demographic, it was 23.3 percent.

Year Up is trying to change those numbers, Chertavian said, by getting “employers to look beyond the educational discrimination associated with ‘need not apply if you don’t have a four-year degree.’” College degrees, he told us, “are used as a proxy,” and not a very good one, he thinks, “for the real skills, abilities, competencies and attitudes companies want.”

For more about how Year Up, which has expanded since we last profiled them, trains young people without college degrees and places them in corporate jobs, here is an edited transcript of Paul Solman’s full conversation with Chertavian. Hear from Year Up students in the segment below.

Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor


So how’s the organization been doing in the six years since we last saw you?

So since we last spoke in 2008, Year Up has grown by more than 500 percent. We’ve opened up now in 12 cities across the country — when we first spoke I think we were in only three or four cities. The reason we’ve grown is because those young adults are economic assets, and not social liabilities, and they’re becoming pipelines of talent for the best companies in this country, from State Street, to Bank of America, to Google, to Goldman Sachs. They’re providing the talent those companies need, that’s why we’ve grown.

Are you cherry picking the inner-city kids who would already succeed anyway? The students we met were so impressive that you couldn’t help but think that you had plucked out from the community the most motivated who simply hadn’t had a chance before.

The reason we did a randomized, controlled trial, which we’ve done a complete blind assessment on, was to disprove that as a potential effect. We admitted a group — some went through Year Up, some we just followed. All were admitted, and the reality was the ones who went through Year Up had some of the highest increases in wages of any youth development program that we’ve seen in the last 20 years. So it reduces that effect that we’re choosing a student who would have made it otherwise; we’re able to give them a significant increase in their wage-earning capacity.

I think you have to sell the audience on that one. These kids are no different than any other kid in the inner city?

For young adults who apply to Year Up, clearly there’s a selection bias in terms of who applied to the program, right. Our young adults will work in a minimum wage, a fast rood, a retail or security job. We know that if you’re applying to Year Up, you’re probably able to apply for a minimum wage job. The question is, is a retail job what you want for all of your young people? We can change the trajectory of that earnings capacity, or better said, those young adults change their own trajectory by working hard, proving in great companies that they can be an asset, and getting paid commensurately with the skill and the attitude that they bring to bear.

But this doesn’t then address as much the kids who just aren’t working at all?

It would not address someone who did not want to change their circumstance. So many of our young adults are not working when they come to us, but if someone says, I do not want to put in the effort, I don’t want to show up on time every day, I don’t want to work hard, then you would not be able to be successful in this program.

Year Up CEO Gerald Chertavian stresses the development of soft and hard skills. NewsHour still image.

Gerald Chertavian at Year Up, where he is founder and CEO. NewsHour still image.

I asked the students we spoke to, what percentage of all the people you know, not just the motivated ones, would be able to do this program? Two of them said 100 percent; one of them said 55 percent. What’s your number?

My guess is between 80 and 90 percent. I imagine there are some young adults, just like there are some folks in all of society, who may need additional support. It could be mental health, it could be substance abuse, it could be cognitive — I think that’s a relative 10 or 20 percent of your population. But I think our young adults reflect the population of this country in terms of their aptitude, their aspiration and their willingness to work hard to get ahead. It’s a misperception that our young adults are not capable, motivated, hungry and smart.

But do you really believe that? You don’t think that there’s a cognitive deficiency, for example, something that nobody talks about…

There’s absolutely not a cognitive deficiency. There are some preparation deficiencies, whereby a young adult may not have gained all of the grammatical skills, some of the mathematics skills, and therefore yes, you’d have to work hard at developmental education for some folks, absolutely, but does that mean that they actually can’t learn? Not at all. Does it mean that they’re cognitively challenged? Not at all, that’s a complete misperception.

Have you always believed that’s a misperception, or are you convinced of it now because you’ve been running this program?

I now have the facts and the data to prove what might have been a perception to me before.

The kids we saw just seemed like they were poster children for articulate, look-you-in-the-face, funny, smart… You didn’t give us your poster children?

You can pick across the 2,100 students we’re going to serve this year — you can blind pick names on a sheet — and I will guarantee you that that is the majority perception you form. That’s an important point because the reality is, particularly from our experience, the majority of our young people in our urban areas, they want the same things your children want; they have the same aspirations that you had as a young person. They haven’t been given the opportunity and the access; that’s not a personal defect.

“The majority of our young people in our urban areas, they want the same things your children want; they have the same aspirations that you had as a young person.”

It turns out that the impressive students we met were also from immigrant families. Does Year Up have a disproportionate number of first generation immigrant kids?

About 15 to 20 percent of our young adults would be immigrants, a much larger percentage are first generation, but our whole population is a true mix. So if you were in Atlanta versus Chicago, the populations would reflect the demographics of those cities. The reality is, across our whole organization, we haven’t seen a significant difference in who is able to take advantage of this opportunity, whether your family has been here for generations or not.

When I last talked to you, it was the teeth of the great recession, and you all were worried.

We didn’t know what was going to happen in 2009. But we grew by 25 percent in 2009. We placed every student in July of 2009 into an internship, a paid internship, with corporate America. If there was one time in the history of this country people could have said, “Gerald, we don’t need any more interns, we can’t afford it, it’s the recession,” it would have been July 2009. But the fact that we continued to grow during that period showed me that America needs talent. The skills gap is considerable, and if we can close that skills gap and connect the supply of talented young people with demand for skills, we have a long-term positive business proposition, and a program that serves the needs of our primary stakeholder, our student.

What are the challenges today?

So if we look today, there’s still a significant skills gap, and companies have demands — whether it’s quality assurance testing, financial skills, cyber security, it could be high value customer service. What we’re doing is trying to be increasingly nimble and responsive to the needs of our hirers, our employers. What that means is we’re starting with what are your needs at Facebook, or at JP Morgan, rather than finding a company who needs a certain skill. That way we can go from placing a few students with you to being relevant to your human capital pipeline across your company.

After I profiled Year Up in 2008, going from company to company in this country, what I heard was that they just want people who will show up on time, who will be presentable, who will know how to talk to other people. It is precisely the soft skills that you so emphasized that seem to be so lacking as far as employers are concerned.

We continue to believe, and know, that you hire for skill and fire for behavior. If you focus on the ABCs — attitude, behavior and communication skills — especially at the entry level, the employer will do the rest. We’re helping those young adults develop the professional skills, attitudes and behaviors that we know corporate America wants, while teaching some of the specific skills, or the functional competencies students need, too. We’re even beating college grads on that very measure of professionalism.

I guarantee you beat college grads because I teach those college grads, and they don’t have the firm handshake, and the looking in the eye, and the directness of everybody I ever meet in this organization.

Yes, and those non-cognitive skills, you can learn those in a finite period of time. So some of the cognitive skills — can you remediate or develop a mathematical gap — that’s going to take some time. But can young people learn those non-cognitive skills, and do they bring with them grit and persistence? That’s the special sauce within Year Up, and we’re proving that with over thousands of young people, and hundreds of companies who are getting a taste of some of the best talent in this country.

What have you revised since 2008? What didn’t work, or what have you changed?

We’ve opened up a whole track in finance and work in fund accounting and back-office operations, so we’re serving the needs of a company more broadly. Our aspiration is to be able to say to corporate America, tell us your broad need for middle skill jobs, and we’ll work with you to be a value-added partner. That’s a change in aspiration and interaction with our organizations. At State Street, we now place up to a hundred young people a year into fund accounting, and it helps State Street build human capital for their organization.

We’ve increased retention now almost 10 percent more than we ever have because we focused on how to better serve a young person who may be going through a crisis, to prevent them from leaving or dropping out of the program, or firing themselves in the program.

So what do you do? Call them up on the phone, go to the house?

We learned that if you have just one mistake in the first four days of the program, you’re 20 percent more likely not to complete the program. So we used to wait to see what happened after that first four days. We now jump on it so quickly, with data, and share with the student that he or she is now 20 percent more likely not to complete the program. We’re thinking about dealing with prevention rather than crisis.

And how do you support them, what do you do — buy them ice cream, hold their hand?

You talk to them and say, what happened this week? Was this an issue of not having the discipline to get up on time? Do you have an alarm clock that works, do you have the ability to map out the route to get here, and do you understand the variability of that route? How do I have to plan my day so I’ll always be early, rather than always be on time — and on-time is late for us.

“We don’t save anyone, we don’t do anything to anyone. We are their runway, and those young adults are the 747s that take off.”

We know that one of the highest correlations for a young person’s success is having a caring adult in their life. Some of our young adults perhaps have not had as many caring adults as they need. We have adults who are able to be consistent, caring, and not enabling, because our job is not to enable a young person; our job is to teach and to empower a young person to take control of their own lives. We don’t save anyone, we don’t do anything to anyone. We are their runway, and those young adults are the 747s that take off.

So just give me one example of something you did with someone.

Sure, so imagine you’re my mentee, and I’m working with you at my house for dinner, and I say, well, how’s work going, and you say oh, I have way too much to do, and I’m not sure how to handle it. Okay, now if you don’t manage that situation, you could be in trouble at work, so I’m going to sit down with you and say, first of all, when you have more than you can do, how do you set expectations with each person? How do you communicate that you now have more things to do than there is time available? I would be working with a student, talking with them, listening to them, and helping them empower themselves to manage their supervisor, or supervisors, so they can be successful.

So if I want to be a member of your team as a volunteer, and help young people with regard to self-presentation, what do you tell me to prepare me?

Treat our young adults the same way you would treat your own child. They are not different. Hold them to the same high expectations; be brutally honest with them.

So imagine we were speaking, and I said, Paul, “Can I axe you a question?” instead of ask. What I would say to a young person is: I have no judgment on the vernacular — in fact, I grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, so when I go home, it sounds a little different perhaps than when I’m in a professional setting. But if you’re in a Fortune 100 company, and you use the work “axe” versus “ask,” people will have a perception of you. You’re way too smart for that to happen, and I’m going to tell you that right up front, so you can practice being on the professional stage. You’re not trying to be someone else, you’re just recognizing that there’s a code, and a standard, that you’re adhering to, so that people pay attention to your brain, not, perhaps, to your use of language.

So what happens to your students after you place them?

We sent out an online survey to all our graduates. First of all, we were told no one would respond to it, but we had a 61 percent response rate. Our average student had increased their wages close to almost $19 an hour — that’s a pretty significant wage earning in this country. So we know that wage growth is happening, which is positive, and we also know that when you first graduate from the program, 85 percent of the graduates earn, on average, $15 an hour, or $30,000 dollars per year, and some are enrolled in college full time. We know the results are there. In fact, we have a report every single night that tells you who got a job in America, how much they’re making, and where they’re working.