A Boise company is working to bridge the generation gap at work with a skills program designed for the youngest workers, and the older people who often supervise them.
Lorna Johnston, a project and HR manager, founded Service Performance through Outstanding Training, or SPOT, International in February 2015 to develop training for the hospitality industry. Johnston previously worked at the Venetian Resort Hotel in Macao, where she helped to create the hotel’s operating procedures, and in various luxury hotels in Europe and Asia before moving to Boise after getting married. With her company, she hopes to help hotels, hospitals and restaurants improve their customer service and train employees.
Johnston has noticed one critical need in particular: a lack of effective communication between the generations.
“Business owners need to understand the younger generations,” Johnston said. “Millennials will soon be stepping into management positions at a lot of companies and Generation Z is beginning to enter the workforce. These generations have grown up in this era of technology and have a completely different style that companies will have to adjust to.”
Soft skills have risen to prominence in recent years in the national discussion about workforce readiness, with many employers saying those skills are more important than job skills that can be taught on the job. Boise State University focuses on soft skills with its MBA students, Idaho State University has worked with the Idaho Department of Labor to host soft skill seminars for businesses, and University of Idaho teaches soft skills through its Career Services department to help students and alumni with interviews.
Johnston said many of her clients believe members of Generation Z lack enthusiasm for work. They’ve told her the young people tend to lack telephone skills, can’t talk properly to customers – appearing either detached or abrupt – and often leave positions after only a few months.
For their part, Johnston said, younger workers have complained that many businesses use outdated software or paper-based procedures, don’t provide sufficient training, and have no electronic communication system such as Slack or Google Hangouts for team collaboration.
“It is a problem for both sides,” Johnston said. “Managers are saying they don’t know how to motivate young employees and you are hearing concerns from members of Generation Z that they don’t feel properly used.”
Johnston decided to start her soft skills training with Generation Z, which she classifies as anyone born after 1993. Generation Z has grown up using technology. This means they can learn new information quickly when it is supplied through an interactive medium such as an app or web video. Many members of Generation Z can switch quickly between technical tasks while using a computer or mobile device, according to SPOT International.
But for Generation Z, social interactions have moved away from parks and streets to mobile devices. That can make some members of Generation Z seem socially awkward, Johnston said.
“The way they converse is similar to the way they talk between themselves on their mobile devices – short, sweet and to the point.” Johnston said. “It can come off as curt to members of other generations.”
Johnston created a program that teaches soft skills to high school students and launched a pilot of the training at Caldwell High School last fall.
“The stuff they are teaching these kids – no one else thinks to teach these things,” said Carly Manhart, a business education teacher at Caldwell High School. “No one else would think to spend an entire week teaching kids how to use their voice and their body language because no one else would think that is important.”
Caldwell High School partnered with SPOT International to serve as a trial for its Gen Z: Game of Work program last fall, which has students simulate and act out work scenarios, and will continue the program during the spring semester and possibly into the next school year, said Anita Wilson, principal at Caldwell High School.
SPOT International’s program has participants identify the key competencies demonstrated. Employers are then invited to the class to discuss their work and the importance of soft skills. At the end of the program, students do a business internship to put their new soft skills to use and to gain work experience. Participants spend 10 weeks in class and six weeks in the internship.
Students that went through the program showed significant improvement with social skills and growth in their self-confidence, Manhart said. At the start, students tended to read with their head down and were embarrassed when they stumbled over words. By the end, they could project their voices, respond to one another, and better overcome embarrassment, she said.
“It’s black and white,” Manhart said. “It has been awesome to see their transformation.”
Students in the program also take assessments to identify their personality type, strengths, interests and emotional intelligence. That information can be paired with a resume to explain the type of management style and working condition that would be best for the participant.
“We can look at another individual in the classroom and adjust how we work with the student based on what we know about them with this test,” Manhart said. “Some people care more about tasks and getting things done, while others care more about people and building relationships.”
SPOT International has four employees. Its other programs address topics such as how to improve customer service processes. It also develops tailored programs for clients who are adding a new customer service feature, such as a concierge desk or valet process.
SPOT International’s Game of Work program teaches 13 soft skills: communication, interpersonal skills, self-awareness, teamwork, optimism, resilience, adaptability, being proactive, time management, problem solving, integrity, empathy and critical thinking.
“Soft skills are one of the most critical components to an employee’s success in the workplace, but they have been undervalued historically,” said Lorna Johnston, who has created soft skills training. “That was OK for previous generations because they learned many of these skills outside of school, but Generation Z spends a lot of its free time behind a screen.”