The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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How to WOW Employers
Donald Moore

Like many young adults, I’ve often sent job applications via e-mail. In the past I applied for jobs at places like Gizmodo, a technology blog, and PC Richard. I made a point of emphasizing my writing experience and my familiarity with computers. Often, I didn’t even receive a response. This annoyed and confused me. What about my applications made them not even worth an answer? What was I doing wrong?

I only discovered the answer years later, after I’d graduated from high school and joined a job training program called Year Up.

A Valuable Opportunity

My instructor in a computer class recommended I apply to the program, which prepares urban youth for careers in corporate America. At first I was skeptical; I’d just finished a whole course on computers and figured I knew enough. But my instructor told me that Year Up would give me the chance to get valuable work experience in my field.

The application process was involved. I had to gather two forms of ID, my high school diploma, and my high school transcript, then write a two-page essay and get a recommendation. I also submitted my SAT score, my resume, and anything else I thought would look good to the admissions team.

The next step was a visit to the program’s office, where they tested my writing and basic computer skills, and a friendly member of the admissions team asked me questions one-on-one.

Waiting to find out whether I’d been accepted was more nerve-wracking than the actual application process. I thought about my options if I didn’t get in; with so little work experience, I worried I wouldn’t be able to get a high-paying job. And I’d missed the fall deadline for college applications, so I’d have to wait five months if I wanted to enroll in school.

Competence Is Only the Beginning

Finally, they called me: I’d been accepted and would be starting soon—less than a month after submitting my application. I was so relieved to begin a new phase of my life.

The program is divided into two parts: four months of classroom training, followed by a six-month internship at a corporation. I was looking forward to building on my computer training, but as I soon found out, I needed more than just technical skills to become a successful worker.

The instructors referred frequently to “hard” skills and “soft” skills. Hard skills are the things you learn from a textbook, like how to fix a computer or complete math problems. Soft skills are things that aren’t learned from textbooks, but are just as important in the workplace—things like customer service and teamwork.

Together, soft and hard skills constitute “professional skills”—a new concept to me. I’d always assumed that a worker’s ability to carry out the tasks he’s been hired to do is all that matters. But while going through the program, I realized that the workplace demands more than just competence. It requires me to interact with coworkers, clients, and other business contacts. If I can’t communicate effectively with these people, I can’t do my job.

A Real Pro

image by Terrence Taylor

I was expected to put my professional skills into practice immediately. An example: Often when I wanted to use the word “mine”—as in, “that book is mine”—I would incorrectly use the word “mines.” The staff members pointed out that this is incorrect; adding an “s” on the end makes the word a plural noun, as in exploding landmines. Whenever any student used “mines” when meaning “mine,” staff members would say “Boom!”—like the sound actual landmines make—to let us know we had slipped up. Eventually, we caught on.

At first, things like that didn’t seem like a big deal. Why would anyone care if we added an extra “s” to a word? Why did it matter if we used the wrong grammar in a sentence?

As time went on, however, we came to realize that little things like grammar can make a good or bad first impression on an employer. Getting the basics wrong can signal that I’m not interested, or not serious enough to fit into a professional environment, even if that’s not my intention. It wasn’t just grammar: Things like stretching in front of others, dressing inappropriately, not paying attention while someone is giving a speech, or sending improperly formatted e-mails can seem unprofessional.

That’s when I realized why many of my earlier job applications had gone unanswered: I had been e-mailing potential employers without using subject lines, proper greetings, or formal sign-offs. E-mails missing these things are considered unprofessional and many employers delete them without even reading them. Such seemingly small details can make the difference between finding a job and being left out in the cold.

Bloomberg Bound

The technical courses didn’t disappoint me, either: We got extensive training in using Microsoft Office Suite, and spent 14 weeks studying hardware (the actual, physical parts of a computer) and network operations. A final exam required me to take apart and then quickly reassemble a fully functioning computer. By then, this felt like second nature.

For my internship, I began working as a service technician in the information systems department of the financial media company Bloomberg LP, where I helped other employees with computer issues. Thanks to my classes, I knew how to communicate effectively with my co-workers and employers, which is just as important as technical ability.

I also learned the art of networking, or building connections with other people. This can range from asking someone you meet for their business card, to working with a group of coworkers on a big project. Networking means understanding that when you interact with one person, you are actually building a connection with everyone that person knows. So, if my coworker happens to know the owner of another large company, she might be able to put in a good word for me if I decide to seek employment at that company.

Before the program, my relationships were strictly social. In fact, the idea of using connections for my own gain was off-putting. But I learned that networking is a natural part of the business world.

Ready and Able

Maybe most important, I learned to see my internship as not just a learning experience, but also a six-month interview. I treated it that way every day I came to work, and it paid off: this July, a few weeks before my internship was set to end, I received a full-time job offer from Bloomberg. I am a PC Support Helpdesk Technician. I proved that I had the drive and skills necessary to make it as a full-time employee, and was lucky that Bloomberg was ready to hire at this time.

As a new hire, I have a lot of opportunity to advance in the ranks. Performing well at my job will help me achieve this, but so will going back to school and getting a diploma. Even though it helped me land a job, the program also showed me the importance of education to career advancement. I will be attending night classes in the fall.

These days, I notice that many of my friends are like I was two years ago: motivated and intelligent, but unsure of what they want to do for a living, and not yet ready to work in a professional environment. Since then, thanks to a strong training program, I have come a long way: from not knowing how to send a proper job application, to landing a good job.

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