Until this fall, Terry High School junior Hatty Eaton hadn’t given a lot of thought to becoming a teacher. But when she completed a survey of her interests and prospective career choices the first week of the semester, teaching rose to the top of the list of jobs that might fit her. The timing of that recommendation was fitting, too, as Eaton had signed on to work as a teacher’s aide at the local elementary school.
“I took that survey, and it gave me teaching careers,” Eaton told Montana Free Press this week. “That kind of made me more sure that that could be a possibility for something for me to do.”
Eaton was one of 19 Terry juniors and seniors to take the survey this fall — their first assignment in a free dual-credit class that Miles Community College in Miles City is piping remotely into high schools throughout eastern Montana. From there students will pivot to lessons about time management, professional behavior and resolving conflict in the workplace, all culminating in an end-of-year mock interview with MCC staff for a job of the student’s choosing. MCC Dean of Student Engagement Richard DeShields, who developed and teaches the course, said the focus on so-called “soft skills” is designed to not only get students thinking about their futures but to help them become more well-rounded employees.
“When we talk about the trades or we talk about technology or we talk about actual careers, it’s the technical skills that we still focus on,” DeShields said. “We’re trying to teach a skill and navigate all of those pieces, and sometimes we forget these other components.”
Miles Community College first launched the course among its freshmen in fall 2022, in part, DeShields said, to help student-athletes and others better identify an area of study that aligns with their interests. According to MCC President Ron Slinger, the course was popular enough that he began pitching it to area high schools, with Terry High School and Jordan’s Garfield County High School signing on as pilot sites for the spring of 2023. This fall, the number of participating districts climbed to 15, and the campus received $34,500 in grant funding through the Montana Community Foundation to support its efforts in July. Slinger added that MCC is giving a presentation on its initiative at the Association of Community College Trustees’ annual conference in Las Vegas in October.
“I think a lot of it is coming out of the pandemic especially — we know this with adults, but also with high school students — people were sheltered, they didn’t interact with each other,” Slinger said of the course’s appeal. “They’re stymied in these skills of conflict resolution, how to treat each other respectfully, how to respond appropriately, all these things.”
For Slinger, adding a one-credit class on soft skills to Montana’s already extensive patchwork of career-based K-12 opportunities is also a way to address a key concern Montana employers have identified in the workforce. According to a 2019 survey of more than 1,000 businesses conducted by the Montana Chamber Foundation, 80% of respondents indicated that “workforce readiness skills” should be a required component of public school curriculum. The survey results also listed a lack of interpersonal skills as the second biggest challenge to business growth in the state.
Montana Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Todd O’Hair acknowledged that those challenges aren’t necessarily new. But, he said, he and his staff hear from businesses “almost daily” about their continued struggles dealing with basic workplace issues: what to do about an employee who doesn’t dress appropriately, doesn’t understand what a full work week looks like, doesn’t know how to address customers or know the significance of a handshake. Reinforcing those skills at an early age is something O’Hair believes Montana “needs to focus on.”
“I don’t know where the root of that derives,” O’Hair said. “I don’t know if that’s because we’re increasingly a social media-driven society or what it is. But some of those basic soft skills seem to really be lacking. And we’re hearing it with employers that are saying those sort of things, whether they’re hiring a graduate from a four-year university or someone that’s coming right out of high school.”
The concept isn’t particularly foreign to public school leaders either. In Lewistown, school superintendent Thom Peck said instruction on certain aspects of career development — namely crafting resumes and interviewing for jobs — was already available for disadvantaged students or students with special needs. However, Peck noted that staff and funding limitations prevented Fergus High School in that town from expanding such instruction to the rest of the student body. Partnering with MCC to host its course removes those barriers, Peck continued, and will hopefully give students “a leg up on increasing their employability.”
“It’s very similar to what we were already doing,” Peck said. “But now it’s reaching a larger, broader group of kids.”
Peck added that the course dovetails with efforts by Montana agencies to bolster resources for public school students, including services offered statewide by the Department of Labor and Industry and the Office of Public Instruction’s recent hiring of nine regional career coaches. Fergus, one of the latest additions to MCC’s list of participating schools, will start the course as an elective for seniors next spring.
In Jordan, school superintendent Nate Olson said enrollment is now mandatory for all seniors. Terry K-12 principal Paige Denny said her district started last spring with seniors but is now transitioning the class to a junior-level requirement. She sees that switch as offering students another year to “hone those skills and utilize them” as they fill out college and scholarship applications, send out resumes or go straight into the workforce. Before students complete the course, they’re required to write a job description in a field they’re interested in and conduct a mock interview with MCC instructors for that position. DeShields said the questions he poses in those interviews are specifically designed to gauge the soft skills they’ve studied.
“Let’s say that someone is going into graphic design; we may ask a question about responding to customers a little differently. It might be something that would focus on how they seek opinions to create a marketing or graphic campaign because that’s working with a customer,” DeShields said. “Or they might say [they’re going into] cosmetology. So then it’s like, ‘Well, how do you meet a customer that comes in and they didn’t like the way that you cut their hair?’”
Slinger’s goal is to expand the career development and interpersonal skills course to all 40 school districts in eastern Montana — a goal, he said, that could as much as double MCC’s total student headcount, but one that carries its own challenges, including training enough instructors.
“We’re this close to having [district] number 18,” Slinger said in a recent interview, his hand raised with a small gap between his finger and thumb. “And number 18 is a larger school. It’s one thing when you’re Rosebud or you’re Plevna or you’re Hysham where you only have a small handful of students. You could just go to them and say, ‘You seven are taking this class.’ When the school has 100, 200 students, it’s not as easy to do that.”
As a high school junior, Eaton said not many of her peers are gearing up to enter the workforce full-time in the immediate future. But even early in the semester, she continued, she does see a lot of value in the lessons offered by MCC, even when it comes to non-work-related tasks like preparing for tests. Part of the class requires students to personally reflect on their strengths and weaknesses and identify specific skills they need to improve, which Eaton suggested helps enforce a broader underlying ability to self-critique.
“Especially with the reflections, you see, ‘Oh, maybe I need to work more on my time management, or maybe I need to work on being more trustworthy,’” Eaton said. “You can really evaluate yourself better.”
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