Children's Voice May/June 2007

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Job Coaching

With a little help, teens can transition successfully into the working world.

By Barbara Dwyer

Whether you are a foster parent, mentor, or other child advocate, you have a unique opportunity to help an at-risk teen launch a successful career. All the work you do with your teen is with the goal of helping him or her become a successful, responsible adult with a bright future and good prospects for living-wage employment.

Making sure your young adult stays in school has been an important part of the process, but today's typical middle or high school does little to prepare students to enter the workforce without learning everything the hard way. Can you do anything to make this transition easier and help your start-up adult get a positive start on his or her career? Absolutely!

Here are some practical tips for guiding young adults toward winning that first job and building skills that will benefit them the rest of their lives. Perhaps you are not a foster parent, but a mentor or advocate for a teen. You can use your time with your teen to practice these job-coaching activities.

How can I help my foster child get a job?

The first step is to become his job coach. Among the many roles we play in caring for teens, becoming a job coach can be one of the most rewarding. Job coaching is a chance for you to look within yourself and play to your strengths. It's also an opportunity to discover the strengths, skills, goals, and dreams of the start-up adult with whom you're working.

Many teens find themselves in situations where they have no family support to fall back on, no high school degree, and few financial resources. They may have criminal records; they may have children of their own. As a job coach, you can help your young adult discover what qualities he has to offer a company.

How do I start?

Look within yourself and assess your own feelings about work. Do you talk about work at home? What kinds of things do you say about your job, your boss, and your coworkers? Do you share the wins you experience in the workplace, or just the frustrations? Ask yourself, "What's really important to me about work, other than my paycheck?" Perhaps the answer is developing others, or the victory of achievement, or being acknowledged for what you do.

Whatever your motivation, when you answer this question honestly you will discover your core work values. Share these work values with your teen. Even if she seems not to be listening, she is. This may be the first time she has heard anything positive said about work. Sharing your work values can make a difference in her desire to become employed. If you're unhappy with your work, be honest. Tell her you want to help her choose a job that's a better fit than the one you're in, and why. Listen to her reactions.

As you tackle your role as job coach, your teen takes on another role as well--she becomes your client and must be treated with the respect due any client. Talk with her using adult language, as if she were a good friend. Don't lecture. Get her support by asking her what would work best for her during this process. Growing into adulthood requires looking within. She needs to feel she can trust you and that you will respect her during her journey. She may have earned respect through less-than-favorable actions, and to be respected just because she is a person may be new to her. This single paradigm shift can produce remarkable results.

How do I get my teen to look within if he doesn't want to?

Start with a list. Write down the strengths, qualities, and skills you see in your teen. If he is comfortable with this--and he probably will be because you did it and he didn't have to--you can also ask others in the family to do the same. Make sure you tell him why you believe he has each particular strength, quality, or skill.

If, for example, one of the qualities on your list is that he is helpful, remind your teen of a recent situation when he helped someone else, such as when he helped a friend or sibling with a math problem. It might not have been a big thing to him, but it was a big thing to the person he helped. This reinforcement of how others see him may be just the impetus he needs to take a chance on himself. Remember, the little wins in the workplace and in life are what count.

Spend quiet time together, away from distractions like phones, television, or other family members. This may mean going for a walk, taking a drive, or having lunch in the park. Have some fun, get him thinking, and listen to what he has to say. Really listen. Use words like can, and omit sentences that contain you should. Instead, use statements like:
  • I believe in you.
  • I know you are going to do well.
  • You're really good at _______. Did you know that?
  • I'm here for you.
  • Let's do this together.
Have some fun. Have him interview you as if he had his own TV show and you were a well-known life expert. For example, he might ask you,
  • What did you want to do with your life when you were my age?
  • Why did you want to do that?
  • If you had it to do all over again, what would you do, or not do, differently?
  • Was there someone who helped you when you were getting started? How did you feel about his or her help?
Switch roles. Have him pretend he is 30 years old and is now the well-known life expert. You are the TV interviewer. Ask him the same questions.

When she's ready to take a chance on herself, what do I do next?

Start the process by having her work on the Quality Worksheet. Have her mark on the sheet every quality she has within herself--the list of good qualities you prepared earlier will help with this exercise. You may have to help her define some vocabulary words--thank goodness for dictionaries or, better yet, a thesaurus. When she has marked all applicable qualities, have her narrow them to her top five. Then she must come up with a story or example of how she knows she actually possesses each of these qualities.

For instance, if she decides honesty is one of her best qualities, she must write about one particular event that proves she is honest. A one-line statement like, "I know I am honest because I don't lie," will not prove she is honest. Rather, she should write something like, "Last week I was in a store, and the clerk gave me change for $20, but I had only given her $5. I told her about her mistake even though I really could have used the extra money." If she can add a measurement indicator--a number--to her stories, they will be even better, because business loves numbers.

This exercise serves two purposes. First, by looking within herself, your teen discovers what she has done right. This will build her self-esteem as she begins to understand her true nature. Second, she will be able to use her stories when she is actually interviewing for a job. There's a saying in business: "Facts tell, stories sell."

I have used this exercise across the country while speaking at educational workshops for teachers, counselors, and administrators. Even educators have problems coming up with their stories. These stories are about our wins, but we have been taught from the cradle that bragging is bad, so we tend to bury our accomplishments. But in an interview, these stories can make the difference between employment and unemployment. If you're uncomfortable with bragging, call it marketing--either way, it can and does lead to success. Your teen just needs to learn what to brag about. This exercise will initiate the development of soft skills (emotional intelligence) businesses are looking for.

Another fun and enlightening exercise is to ask her, "If tomorrow you woke up and had the money and the education to do anything in the world you wanted, what would you do?" If she can't think of anything, be patient. Tell her to think about it and get back to you tomorrow. She may come up with some fantastic ideas that don't seem practical to you, but they are her ideas--don't limit them. What you are looking for are her passions. Ask her, "Why would you enjoy that? Why is that important to you? How would you be different if you did that? How would you feel about yourself? How would you feel about yourself if you didn't even try?" You will start to understand what's inside of her, and so will she.

Other questions you can ask include:
  • If money were no object, where would you like to go?
  • What would you like to see?
  • What would you like to learn more about?
  • Where in the world would you like to study, and who would you like to study under?
Have your teen write as many examples as she can think of on
  • things I am good at,
  • things I enjoy doing,
  • skills I have that I want to improve, and
  • skills I don't have that I want to have.
Work together on her lists and see if you can detect patterns in her answers. These patterns should help you guide her to a job she will enjoy and in which she will do well.

Getting a job takes one skill set. Keeping and enjoying that job takes another. These exercises may also motivate your teen to further her formal education. I have seen it happen many times. When teens begin to understand who they are, what they want out of life, and what they want to give to life, education begins to make sense.

What about actually interviewing for a job?

Because of your help, your teen now knows and can tell someone else who he is, what he's good at, and why he should be hired. He knows his strengths, his marketable qualities, and his skills. He knows what he wants to work on and where he wants to go in life. That's a great start for a successful interview.

Many sample interview questions exist on the Internet. Below are some of the most important ones. As his job coach, you will want to practice role-playing as the interviewer and have him answer questions like:
  • Tell me about yourself. He answers what his skills, strengths, and qualities are. He adds any leadership or teamworking abilities. He talks about his education, his goals for his future, and how all of this relates to the job for which he is interviewing. He should be able to do this in about one minute.

  • Why do you want to work for my company? This question will take a little research. He can ask employees who work there and research the company on the Internet. He should know what the company does and what they are known for, such as great customer service, quality products, a unique brand, and so on.

  • Where would you like to be in five years? This question is about education and career goals. Try to help him relate his goals to the company's needs.

  • What are your weak points? This is not true confessions time. He should look at his list of skills he wants to improve for the answer to this question. For example, "I know Word and Excel, but I want to learn how to use computer databases."

  • Do you have any questions for me? This is a very important question. Most teens can't answer this one. He should have a list of two or three questions to ask the interviewer. For example, "What do you see as the biggest challenge in this job?" or "You've given me so much information to think about today. Is it okay to e-mail you questions when I get home?" This is a good one, because it keeps the communication lines open after the interview. Your teen, or you as his job coach, will undoubtedly think of a question or two after he gets home.
Any last tips?

Send thank-you notes. A friend of mine has worked for 10 years as a general manager in a major retail chain. One morning, we were talking about thank-you notes, and she said she had never received one. I asked what she would do if she did receive one. She said she would hire the person. Enough said.

Have your teen dress appropriately for the particular business where she is interviewing. You do not have to spend a fortune dressing her for success, but clean, ironed clothes and good hygiene are a must.

The last tip is for you. As adults, we know we don't have all the answers, but what we do have is experience. Draw on that experience, understanding that you can't heal all your teen's wounds. She faces her future from where she is right now and not where you wish she were. She is the result of the opinions, good and bad, of the people in her life and her belief in what they say. Through your support and your own vulnerability, you will learn as much as your teen does as you walk together through this segment of her journey. Enjoy each other.

Barbara Dwyer is a career coach and CEO and founder of The Job Journey in Sacramento, California.


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