New school, meet old school: Teaching interaction without screens

Midatlantic Employers Association instructor Paul Daigle teaches professional tools to (from left) Alexis Ripper, Amulya Ponna, Dominic Riccio, and Lauren Mueller at STEM in Downingtown.
Midatlantic Employers Association instructor Paul Daigle teaches professional tools to (from left) Alexis Ripper, Amulya Ponna, Dominic Riccio, and Lauren Mueller at STEM in Downingtown. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff)
Posted: January 31, 2014

DOWNINGTOWN The warning signs surfaced on the way to a science seminar.

A group of Downingtown S.T.E.M. Academy students attending a conference at West Chester University had stellar grades, specialized curriculum, and technology know-how.

Their biggest challenge turned out being how to interact with the school district superintendent who came with them.

"They didn't have the natural reflex to just put out a hand, shake, and smile," said Anna Jordan, an informational specialist at the school.

What would happen, Jordan wondered, when the students had to navigate the workplace internships that are an important part of their high school curriculum? Could they execute simple small talk and know not to use "ttyl" in an e-mail to the boss?

So the Chester County science, technology and engineering and mathematics school partnered with the MidAtlantic Employers' Association (MEA) to help make sure students are as socially adept in the workplace as they are on a laptop.

"The technology [skills] get you in the door, but it's the collaboration and communication skills that keep you there," said Susan Boardman, Downingtown S.T.E.M. Academy's internship and partnerships leader.

MEA, a King of Prussia-based organization, assists midsize businesses with human resources issues, employer-employee relations, and workplace culture.

The group sees its partnership with the Downingtown school as a long-term investment to develop the kind of employees businesses are looking for, said Kevin Robins, CEO of the association.

At the Downingtown school, MEA trainers lead students in a series of workshops geared to each grade level.

Freshmen learn time management and basic communication - business etiquette in texting/e-mailing (no winking smiley faces) and face-to-face communication (eye-to-eye contact).

Sophomores learn their personal communication style. (Everyone has one, trainers say.) Juniors are trained in job interviewing (cellphones off) and follow-ups (a handwritten thank-you note still works).

"We are finding as employers that we have to train in communication in a way we didn't before,"said Kim Bohm, a human resources manager at AGC Chemicals Americas Inc. in Exton.

Employees must be reminded that participating in a phone conversation is not the enemy, Bohm said.

Student Nancy Peng said that younger generations' skill and immersion in technology can have side effects.

"When you're communicating through texts and e-mails, all you see are words on a screen," said Peng, 16, a junior. "You forget there's an actual human being behind there."

That disconnect can fuel a kind of self-absorption, said Maham Quraishi, a 17-year-old junior.

On Twitter, "I'm talking about myself and what I'm doing," Quraishi said. "You can lose a consideration for others."

That's where MEA and human resources professionals help bridge the workplace gap between younger and older people who grew up communicating in different ways.

And, just as the students at the Downingtown academy may need training, older workers may as well, trainers say.

It's not just the young person's responsibility to adapt, Bohm said. There is a "happy medium" between "Dear Sir" and "ttyl" (for "talk to you later"), she said.

"In our company, we are heavy on the older generations and light on the millennials," Bohm said. "But in 10 years - maybe five - it will be very different."


kholmes@phillynews.com

610-313-8211

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