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Building the Skills to Get the Job in the First Place

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In addition to the computer science skills my students learn in the Foshay Technology Academy - skills like web and graphic design, programming, and video production -- the students also acquire and build the communication skills necessary for the 21st century workplace. This includes learning how to write resumes and get ready for job interviews. This communication piece is key. I am teaching my students how to go after the jobs and get hired. Interviewing for a job can be a scary experience so my students begin to get over their fright as soon as possible in the 10th grade.

During the first semester of their sophomore year -- the first of six semesters that my students and I spend together -- every student completes a mock interview. This day has become one of the most anticipated and monumental days for the students. They do a lot of preparation to get through the interview, and it becomes an experience that they will never forget. I know, because they discuss their experience again when they apply for jobs at our annual spring Internship Fair when they are juniors, and whenever I hear my students explain the academy to business partners and underclassmen -- this is one of the first items they share.

I teach at Foshay Learning Center, a low-income, under-represented school in South Los Angeles. We are a K-12 span school and more than 90% of my students will be first generation to attend college. I am focused on my students' independent and continued success outside of high school, which is also something reinforced by the California Partnership Academy grant that my program has received from the State for the past twelve years. High school internships are becoming increasingly important for high school students who want to get into better colleges and find future employment, according to a study released February 3, 2014, by Internships.com and the research and consulting firm Millennial Branding. The California Partnership Academy grant mandates that I work with business partners and an advisory board to add the career focus my students need in life outside of high school. Even with all this support, it is still up to the hustle of my students to impress in order to obtain internships, jobs, and opportunities.

Every fall the sophomores dress professionally to conduct a one-on-one mock interview with a professional for an entry level internship. They each have a printed resume that was edited and reviewed by their peers, by me, and by professional mentors. The interviews last about 20 minutes and all of them begin the same way -- introductions, eye contact, smile, and handshake followed by a friendly "tell me about yourself." This models any interview they will encounter going forward.

Sophomores prepare for their mock interviews
Sophomores prepare for their mock interviews

The mock interview day was the first thing I put in place when I started running the Tech Academy twelve years ago, and the only real change from its original format is that now every student gets an individual one-on-one interview instead of having to be interviewed in pairs, since I finally have enough volunteers. The mock interview event used to be a two year experience, but now the juniors go on informational interviews and participate in real interviews in March at our annual internship fair.

It is incredible to see the sophomores prepare for this day. When they enter my class in August they still see themselves as freshmen and most think it is too soon to take themselves seriously. Knowing that they will have to present themselves to someone professionally completely takes them out of their comfort zone and makes them look at themselves and their experience in a new light. No one can hide in a one-on-one interview and there is no one to blame for a poor performance but themselves.

It is fun watching the students practice with each other leading up the interviews. I bring in the seniors who already went through the experience to help the sophomores prepare with the same sample questions I give to the professional interviewers, although many of them come prepared with their own questions. My students know that the interview is not scripted; it is not possible when every interview is unique in its own way. These sample questions are meant to get them thinking and prepared.

The students can only participate in the interview if they show up on time and are dressed professionally. We define professional dress as button down shirt and slacks. Ties and jackets are optional. This has been a point of contention over the years with some of my business partners who work in government, law, or for IBM. However, at game companies, tech companies, and advertising companies, the workplace dress code is very casual -- so showing up in a three piece suit is to be overdressed and out of place. I keep conferring with my business partners about this point and they agree with me.

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Here are examples from the student reflections, where the connection between their mock interview performance to what they will experience in real life is apparent.

Arica:

April:

Katya:

The students write thank you emails after the interview as an opportunity to practice professional writing and continue the relationship. Nothing makes them take their spelling and grammar seriously until they know someone outside of school will read it. As a result of this experience, many students have received opportunities such as on-the-spot internship offers, a personal mentor, and an expansion of their professional networking community.

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It is so special for the students to have this time with a business partner. As hard as I try to have at least one exchange with each of my students in every class period, it is incredibly difficult to give them individual attention in a meaningful way. My classes average thirty-six students, and sometimes the interviewer will discover something significant about the student that they will never share with me in the three years I have with them. It is a personalized experience that makes every student feel special and realize what it is to be taken seriously.

The mock interviews have long lasting effects that I see often when my alumni contact me. One of my favorite stories is from my student from the class of 2012. During his first year at college he applied for a part time job at Costco. He wrote on my Facebook page about how horrified he was that the other candidates were not prepared. In his interview when they asked for work experience he pulled up his digital portfolio. They were impressed into silence. He told me he just channeled everything he had learned from the mock interviews in high school. In the end not only did he get the cashier job he had applied for, they offered him assistant manager based on his portfolio and interview presentation.

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I have also received multiple emails from students after they begin college about the jobs they are offered based on their high school experience. When a professor asks a class to create a resume my students are already done. The professors are quickly impressed and have offered internships on the spot.

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Yes, I run an academy based on building technological skills necessary in the workplace. However, if we don't take the time to teach our students the communication skills that they will need to get a job in the first place, are we really giving them the survival and life skills they need in order to succeed? Many of my students live below the poverty line. I feel a personal mission to give them the experience and tools to change the circumstance they were born into. Learning how to get the job is just as important as keeping and excelling at the job. Communication skills to express what you have learned and accomplished are necessary to prove what you will be capable of producing in the future.