Award-Winning Chapter Program Prepares Students for Jobs

By Kathy Gurchiek Feb 2, 2010
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From security to accounts receivable to graphic design, there always are job openings at Pennsylvania-based Snik Snack Foods, Inc.

The fictitious company is the creation of the Susquehanna Human Resources Management Association(SHRMA), a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) chapter in Pennsylvania. The chapter uses the Workforce Readiness Program, which won a 2009 SHRM Pinnacle Award, to prepare seniors at Shikellamy High School for the task of finding employment.

Many area businesses and workforce boards see students entering the workforce who are unprepared, chapter President Mike Worrell noted in the Pinnacle application.

The quality of their job applications and their lack of job interviewing skills make it “painfully obvious … that this project can have a great impact and meet the expectations of the business community,” he noted.

That’s where the chapter, primarily consisting of HR directors and assistant directors, comes in.

“Interviewing is a big part of what we do,” chapter member and program Co-chair Brenda Balonis said.

The project began with 30 to 35 students in the high school’s communications classes. In 2009 it had expanded to 193 high school students under aschool policy that nearly all of the school’s seniors participate in as a prerequisite to graduation. More than 700 high school seniors have participated since the program’s inception. The only students not required to take the class are those on the advanced placement college track.

That hasn’t stopped those students from participating, though. The senior class president was among the 14 students Worrell interviewed in 2009.

“If he was available, I probably would have hired him,” Worrell said. “He was on the ball, had it all down and knew exactly where he wanted to go.”

The quality of the students who interview has grown with the program, according to Worrell. When he became involved with the program in 2001, he interviewed four young men who appeared one after the other in the same suit.

“It looked like they switched [clothes] in the bathroom,” he said. It’s not that way today. “They seem to take it much more seriously” and are prepared. “It continues to get better and better, and I think students … are buying into it more.”

That might be because it’s a graduation requirement, but Worrell also credits the teachers who impress upon them that they need to think about their future.

“They come in [to the interview] almost shaking and palms sweating when they shake your hand, but by the time they’re gone … they understand this is real life …. [and that] most interviewers are not going to put them in a box and make them fight their way out.”

Balonis said some chapter members conducting the mock interviews have been so impressed that they gave some students their business cards and encouraged then to apply for an opening at their company.

One interviewer called the quality of the applications, resumes and cover letters “top-notch” and the quality of the students “superior.”

“The students’ information looked better than some of the folks that send in materials for actual jobs,” the person wrote in a note to the chapter. “They took the interviews seriously but also realized it was a learning experience as well.”

How It Works

The chapter’s web site contains a page devoted to the company containing posted job openings. The program culminates in 45-minute mock job interviews over a three-week period at the school. The applicant interviews for the job he or she applied for on the chapter web site.

Teachers prepare students during an eight-week-long unit. Class topics include filling out a job application, writing cover letters and resumes, preparing for the interview, and following up with thank you notes to the interviewer.

Chapter members and others they recruit conduct the interviews and score each student on 13 areas that range from appropriate dress to eye contact to the cover letter and the completeness and neatness of the job application. Each student receives immediate feedback in addition to written comments on the score sheet.

In a nod toward job references, job applicants are required to bring a general skills list—noting attributes such as attentiveness in class and ability to meet assignment deadlines—signed by two teachers.

Each student is required to follow up the interview with a written thank you note that the teacher grades and forwards to the interviewer. One student in 2009 wrote, in part:

“I found that your company is a very welcoming and accepting company, given I have tattoos and piercings. Your company seems like it would be a good place to grow, and maybe even have a great impression in my life. I do really think I could bring good ideas, and I would be a great candidate for your current opening in your warehouse.

“If you have still not filled your opening, I am still very interested in a job with your company, and if it’s not too much trouble, I would like to schedule another interview with you. Thank you again for your time and patience with me, and I am expecting to see you in the near future.”

Teaching Moments

The job interviews can be teaching moments, according to Balonis. She recalled interviewing a student who had plugged large holes in his earlobes in the hope that they wouldn’t be as distracting. During the interview, they talked about the consequences of decisions one makes, Balonis said, and that piercings are viewed differently by interviewers depending on the company or job.

Interviewers receive a record of each applicant’s absences and tardiness, and the record might become part of the interview. Some students who don’t see the value in attending school or arriving on time might insist that they’re different on the job, Balonis noted.

“Why wouldn’t you have those same values at school? We really try to get across that [attendance] does reflect on your future,” she said.

Other lessons: the importance of studying a company’s web site and relating that information to the job opening. Awareness of the company’s demographics could help a marketing job applicant pitch ideas for an improved marketing strategy, Worrell pointed out.

There’s no end in sight for the program.

“It’s kind of our flagship program for our chapter,” Balonis noted.

And the other three high schools within a 25-mile radius want in. That includes the school that Worrell’s children attend, but he’s had to reject all requests to date. The chapter doesn’t incur any costs for the program, but it does rely on members volunteering time during the workday to interview students.

“We don’t have the manpower” to do this with more than one school, Worrell said of the 109-member chapter.

Chapters interested in replicating the program are invited to contact SHRMA.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kathy.gurchiek@shrm.org.

Related Article:

Pinnacle Award Winners Demonstrate Wide Range of Service, HR News, Nov. 24, 2009

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