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Training First-Time Employees? Don't Forget Soft Skills

Two women working at a desk in an office.

​Young workers can be a source of seasonal or part-time labor for businesses looking to fill entry-level jobs. But managing these young employees can present challenges, especially if it's their first experience in the workforce.

Mike Catania, chief technology officer at, an online coupon distributor based in Henderson, Nev., recalls a college-age employee who would multitask by watching amusing YouTube videos while he worked—and send them to his boss throughout the day.

"I would probably get three or four a day, just like, 'Hey Mike, check this out,' " Catania said. "When I spoke to him about it, there was no recognition at all that he shouldn't be doing it. It was like reprimanding a puppy."

While many of these first-time employees may have been trained in technical skills like operating a cash register or creating a spreadsheet, they're often missing the soft skills they need to succeed in the workplace, said Kyra Leigh Sutton, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Rutgers University's School of Management and Labor Relations. By making just a small time investment, she says, managers can help these employees succeed at work now and in the future.

Sutton, who teaches HR with a focus on managing a multigenerational workforce, sees the issue from both the employer's point of view and the worker's: Her students, ranging in age from 17 to 22, often talk to her about their experiences working at first-time jobs in restaurants, movie theaters and gas stations. "They tell me, 'We learn about stuff like how to sell lottery tickets, or how to check for ID if someone wants to buy cigarettes, but they don't tell us how to interact with a customer who's upset because they were overcharged for something,' " she said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]

Three of the biggest skills gaps she sees in first-time workers are in the areas of problem-solving, communication and collaboration. Take the example of a young employee faced with a complaining customer. "It's making you uncomfortable," she said. "You don't know how to deal with it, you don't really pay attention to what their complaint is about, and you make a quick decision," such as calling over a manager to handle it. "The manager is thinking, 'Why can't you solve this on your own?' "

An astute manager can train employees in better communication, like listening intently to the customer and gathering as much information as they can before deciding what to do next. Even in fast-paced environments like restaurants, team meetings can include a few minutes of discussion or feedback around soft skills. "I think it's an opportunity for managers," she said. "Part of the conversation could be, 'Let's talk about two solid things you can be doing to start building problem-solving skills.' "

Recognition is especially important for young workers, she added. Acknowledging them for their successes not only supports their growth, it also demonstrates good workplace behavior for other young workers joining the team.

Recognition is one of the reasons Hannah Kelly liked her job at Smashing Tomato, a pizza and salad casual restaurant in Lexington, Ky., where she worked in 2019 at age 18. The pizza parlor rewarded good work with "Bella Bucks," points that could be used to buy food onsite or at one of its sister restaurants, Bella Notte or Bella Forno, and managers were quick to call out employees who went above and beyond.

"I opened by myself [one day], and then I stayed later than my shift because there was a rush," Kelly said. "My manager gave me 30 Bella Bucks, which is a lot, and said, 'Thank you so much for your hard work. You came in early and stayed late, and I just want to let you know I really appreciate it.' It makes you feel better about yourself and the whole job, basically."

Catania, who hires college students for entry-level tasks like validating online coupons, says young employees often "unfairly catch the blame" for mistakes. Instead of assuming young workers are lazy or sloppy, managers can help them succeed if they treat them in good faith.

"As a manager, you need to be clear not just in your expectations for the job, but what is and isn't allowed in an office," he says. "We tend to take social graces for granted in a work environment, but working for you might be this [person's] first job, and they simply lack the context and framework to understand how you need things done."

Ilima Loomis is a freelance writer based in Hawaii.


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