What do you want to be when you grow up? An astronaut, doctor or maybe an All Black? Perhaps like me, you’ve yet to decide…..

This is a question our parents asked us, and undoubtedly one we regularly replay to our own kids. But, whether little Jimmy wants to fly to the moon or represent his country in the famous black jersey; he needs to have the right skills, attitude and experience to achieve his goals.

One of the most important things we can do as parents (in addition to encouraging their dreams!) is learn how to best prepare our teenagers for the world of work. That means helping them understand what employers are looking for and giving them some practical guidance and advice.

“Surely that’s what school is for,” I hear you say…and, yes, in an ideal world, our kids would leave school armed and fully prepared to step into the work environment. Unfortunately, the reality is not all peaches and cream. The problem: a gap (I’d even go as far as saying ‘canyon’) between what employers want and what educators think they want. The result: a recruitment crisis and generation of disenchanted young people, who are three times more likely to be unemployed than their parents. Pretty scary stuff, don’t you think?

Add to the scenario a rapidly changing work landscape, defined by technology, social media, remote working and a global market economy, and it’s clear that young people today have a more daunting passage into work than our generation did. These developments also mean the world is a much smaller place and our kids could potentially be competing for roles with honours students from China – are they up for the challenge?

There’s certainly lots of interesting information on the net, with plenty of research on youth employment, the transition process and the “skills gap”. There are also a number of helpful organisations working in the youth transition-to-employment space, such as the Workchoice Trust. As New Zealand’s longest-standing youth employment charity, we’ve worked with 155,000 senior students to date, so we think we know young people pretty well.

We aim to bridge the education to employment gap by working closely with schools, businesses and young people, through a programme of unique, practical events. We are constantly talking to businesses, so we are up to speed with what they look for when hiring.

So what do employers want when hiring young people?

What employers want from your teen

Many employers say despite the education system’s focus on academic results, these aren’t the only thing they seriously look at. A can-do attitude, the willingness to work and keep learning, resilience, reliability and enthusiasm are key attributes – these attitudes-to-work will be the determining factors in getting, or keeping, a job.

Understanding the current world of work might also help. We regularly receive anecdotal feedback that entry level workers feel entitled to their job and expect a meteoric rise to the top without putting in the hard yards. But these days, competition is stiff and employment is not a guarantee, so helping your child understand that in most cases you have to start at the bottom and work your way up, is an extremely valuable lesson.

The pendulum has also swung to a focus on ‘soft’ skills. A new survey by the Workforce Solutions Group in the U.S, reveals more than 60% of employers say applicants lack crucial ‘communication and interpersonal skills’. Many organisations tell us candidates lack ‘soft’ skills relating to communication and creativity. Obviously, there are still industries that require specific hard-skill education as a pre-requisite to employment, like science, engineering, and accounting, but successful candidates are those with an equal measure of ‘soft’ skills.

What do we mean by ‘soft’ skills? We’re talking good communication, problem solving, leadership, teamwork, empathy, plus social and emotional intelligence.  All great skills we can impart through our parenting or by providing key opportunities for our children to learn from.  

Tips for helping your teen navigate the bumpy road to employment:

Give them the ‘hard’ word: Encourage them to get the ‘hard’ skills their chosen industry requires.  For those going into trades, look into site safety courses, “tool identification and use of” (really important for landing an apprenticeship) and forklift licenses. Make them aware of the importance of a good credit rating – particularly important for finance careers – and an ongoing clean drug record. A full driver’s license is important! Not only will it give them responsibility and independence, but the world of work is much wider to them if they can offer this skill.

Encourage their ‘soft’ side: Understand the ‘soft’ skills employers look for like confidence, communication and team work. Ask them to take on more responsibilities at home like taking their uniform to the cleaners or arranging a car repair; great for boosting their sense of responsibility, accountability and communication skills!

Social media as friend & foe: Social media can be a bonus, but only if used appropriately. Ensure they have tight privacy settings and that all viewable content is suitable for a potential employer. Get them to google themselves as an employer would, and see what comes up. Encourage them to set up a ‘LinkedIn page’ to assist with business networking and, if they’re interested in a creative industry like fashion design, introduce them to ‘Pinterest’.

Experience counts: Work experience is vital. Expose them to the world of work through workplace visits, holiday jobs and part-time jobs. Take them to work with you – research shows young people with at least four visits to a workplace have a better understanding of the culture and reality of work. Employers want to see that young people have the ability to hold down a job. While after-school activities are important, getting a part-time job or holiday work is equally as important as playing sport. Developmentally, it helps them learn the value of money and how to behave in a work environment.

Practice makes perfect:  Help them understand the recruitment process – how to market themselves, navigate a job interview and prepare a suitable CV (remembering to check that their email address and voicemail message are appropriate). Help them research the company they are applying to so they understand the culture. Practice, practice, practice…..rehearse a phone screening call with them, do mock interviews, teach them to shake hands and make eye contact. If they get an interview, make sure they’re on time and appropriately dressed.

Don’t panic: Their first job might not be what you would have wanted or even what they expected, but stay focused on the bigger picture. Roles in hospitality, call centres and retail are fantastic for teaching customer service skills and improving communication. Remember career paths today are more like a piece of lattice than a ladder. This generation will change industries and roles a lot more than the baby boomers….

Employers need you: Like any other stage in parenting, your job isn’t over when they secure their first job. Employers will appreciate your ongoing support! You may need to be the “encouragement” that gets them up every day when the reality (and tiredness) of full-time work sets in. Or, you may need to coach them in situations of challenge, like appropriately dealing with workplace conflict. Remember, the world of work is very different from what they are used to in education, so be available to help with the transition while letting them maintain independence.

Above all else, just be there to listen, encourage and support them on their journey….they might even thank you for it one day!

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Amanda Wheeler is CEO of the Workchoice Trust; a not-for-profit that aims to bridge the education to employment gap. A former 'Young Business Person of the Year', Amanda is passionate about her role, which sees her assist young New Zealanders by empowering them with motivation and the skills to become work-ready.

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