Employers tout people skills at local event for career teachers

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Jul. 22—If you want to work for Christa Morphis, the most important skill is one you may not have learned in school.

"Teach them how to shake a hand," Morphis, owner of Model City Insurance, told a group of high school career technology teachers at the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce Wednesday. "If they can't shake a hand, if they can't look me in the eye, that's a problem."

Morphis was one of several local business owners who spoke to teachers Wednesday on the second day of the Career Tech Educators Conference, a teacher training event held in Anniston and Oxford this week. More than 250 teachers and counselors attended the conference, which started at Oxford Civic Center on Tuesday and continued at various local locations Wednesday.

The goal of Wednesday's event, organizer Kevin Lockridge said, was to make sure teachers know what sorts of skills local businesses want to see in a high school graduate. Lockridge, the director of the Career Academy at Calhoun County Schools, said there is demand for many of the office skills that are explicitly taught in schools, such as familiarity with Excel and other software. But employers typically mention soft skills as well.

"It's often the same thing: they just want someone who will show up every day," Lockridge said.

Right now, the market would seem to be good for recent graduates, no matter their skill level. Statewide, unemployment was at 3.3 percent in June, and state labor officials have said there are more jobs now than there are people willing to fill them.

Employers at the Wednesday conference, from businesses as varied as banking, insurance and a coin laundry, said the main skills they wanted to see are largely the same: people skills. A basic command of old-school tasks like writing a check. The understanding that when a task is done, you need to find out what needs to be done next.

"Be good at what you're doing," said Ken Barrett, president of Washin Coin, a laundromat with seven local locations. "Be valuable to the company."

Barrett said kids who know what they want to do in the workforce sometimes have a problem finding someone to teach them the skills they really need. He said that as a kid in Canada, he decided he wanted to be an electrician, largely because of something his father told him.

"He told me computers are coming up everywhere, but they're always going to need somewhere to plug them in," Barrett said. As a young man, Barrett went to work at Honda, got transferred to Lincoln, and ultimately found a way to go into business for himself.

"When I was 18 years old, I didn't think I'd be running laundromats in Alabama," he said.

Barrett said his own career taught him that people always need to work on new skills, developing the ability to do a different job. If you don't, he said, you could limit your career options.

"What you're really good at — that job might not exist anymore," he said.

Morphis, the insurance agency owner, said career tech teachers in Calhoun County Schools directed her toward sales jobs largely because she couldn't stop talking in class.

The ability to carry on a conversation is still something she looks for in an employee, she said. She also asks job candidates what they do for fun — not just to find out about their personalities, but because an insurance salesperson who likes to fish, for instance, might be the best person to talk to someone looking for boat insurance.

However, it's getting harder to find people who can connect that way, she said, largely because people are online so much.

"Customer service is dying because people don't know how to hold a conversation," she said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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