Acquiring Soft Skills the Hard Way

How far would you be willing to go for $7 an hour? Would you cover up your tattoos, take off your hoodie and remove your piercings? Would you allow a stranger to scold you for talking back? Would you be willing to push against a rock-solid wall?

Now, what would you do if you were black and jobless with little or no education, but with two children to feed and cloth? If you were just released from prison, with no money, no job, and no place to go? Then would you be willing to push against a rock-solid wall?

A few months ago I arranged to observe two attitudinal job-training sessions at STRIVE in East Harlem, where I watched 18 idlers be put into working order. As claimed by the acronym—Support and Training Result in Valuable Employees—STRIVE is a non-profit organization that teaches ex-offenders, welfare mothers, high school drop outs and former drug-dealers how to develop the characteristics that our work-obsessed culture associates with success: a positive attitude, steady eye contact, a firm handshake, and a curse-free vocabulary.

Although STRIVE teaches some “hard skills” like how to write a resume using Microsoft Word and how to work with PowerPoint and Excel—its primary focus lies on the development of “soft” (or interpersonal) skills. In a four-week boot camp, students are ruthlessly confronted with their shortcomings. STRIVE instructors nag, correct, and punish their students in an attempt to help them abandon their past life and enter the low-wage workforce.

Less than half of those who enlist make it through the boot camp, but those who do show up to their first job interview on time, dressed appropriately. They don’t talk back. They give polished and positive answers to their interviewers’ questions. The right attitude gets them a job at the Burger King counter, a back-office position at AOL, or work as a janitor at the YMCA. Their job pays $7 or $8 an hour.

STRIVE’s star-spangled logo promises “Where Attitude Counts” and Mike*, a new student, is about to feel the slogan’s impact. When the 19-year-old father of two filed STRIVE’s application, he was told to come dressed for a job interview on the first day of class.

Mike is wearing baggy pants and a heavy gold chain. He has a couple of facial piercings and his hair is elaborately braided. When he signs the attendance sheet, he forgets to return the pen. He struts off, preoccupied with setting the right impression in these crucial first minutes of class.

“My pen, sir!” Gyasi Headen, manager of training, reminds him sternly.

Avoiding eye contact, Mike slowly swaggers back to return the pen.

Headen, who graduated from STRIVE many years ago after serving four years for kidnapping and assault, shakes his head and raises one eyebrow. “You are still cool, man,” he mocks.

While one instructor, Joseph Perez, goes over the interview basics with the class (“wear a suit, look into people’s eyes”), academy trainer Robert Smith approaches a girl in the front. He stares at her piercing. Smith is a clown. He has to stand on his toes to catch a glimpse of the girl’s chin. He exaggerates his stare until he has the whole class laughing.

The girl finally takes off her chin-piercing. Another student is less cooperative. Since class started, he has been sitting with crossed arms and much of his face buried under his hoodie. Motionless, he stares past instructors and classmates. Asked to emerge from under his hoodie, he only snarls and gets kicked out of class.

STRIVE was originally created to help young men of color, a minority long cut off from the economic mainstream. And though STRIVE does train women, its focus seems to be giving an attitude adjustment to young African-American males: a group commonly considered poor workers, poor fathers, poor husbands—and simply, poor men.

For the past two decades STRIVE has been battling the game face of young African-American males—that stubborn, nonchalant expression principals and parents know all too well. Ron Mincy, Professor of Social Policy and Social Work Practice at Columbia University and editor of the book Black Males Left Behind, says that the game face is an important survival strategy for young men in crime-ridden neighborhoods.

“It is a skill that is valuable in some places,” Mincy, a tall, wiry man with a wizard’s moustache and light brown skin, explains. “But you need to acquire a different skill when you are in a different place.” STRIVE claims to prepare its students for this “different place,” a place that for many of them may as well be Timbuktu: the workplace.

Mincy parks his bike in front of his crowded office on the seventh floor of Columbia’s School of Social Work. He takes off his helmet, but leaves his door open and his futuristic headset nestled over one ear; Mincy is always on call.

“There are various aspects of my job that I don’t like,” Mincy tells me, thinking about the work ethic STRIVE imbues on its cadets. “Work is not pleasant. That’s why it is called work.

“I think the idea that you can advance to a comfortable career in a competitive environment without having paid some dues is just fantasy,” he says. “A fantasy that the people who come to STRIVE must recognize.”

Robert Smith is a stocky white man in his thirties with a beaming smile and the eagerness of a child at Christmas. He came to STRIVE after serving seven years for dealing cocaine. After graduating from STRIVE, the organization got him a job at T.G.I. Friday’s.

“I loved it,” Smith says. “My main focus has always been to keep my customers happy. I developed good communication skills in my past occupation.”

His communication skills landed him back at STRIVE, where as academy trainer he now conducts the boot camp for newly hired STRIVE employees. (New employees have to go through a condensed, two-day version of the attitudinal training.)

“Nobody comes to STRIVE because life is good,” he addresses the class on this first day.

“People don’t leave a tropical island and their little umbrella drink to come here. You come here because you are hanging by a thread. You come here because you are saying: I’m pissed and I’m lost and I’m confused.”

Marisol, an overweight woman with a pronounced limp and very long artificial nails, agrees. She seems determined, though utterly insecure. “I came to STRIVE,” Marisol tells her new classmates, “because everything is not smooth-sailing. Right now I’m crooked and I need someone to put me straight.” Marisol laughs sheepishly and makes a gesture as if straightening out a bent tree. She’s about to get her wish. When one instructor asks her about her skills she boasts that she can type 40 words per minute. Kate Barth, another instructor, takes her up on it.

“Let’s go, you’ll take a test,” Barth says.

As Marisol follows Barth to the computers, I notice that one of the students has fallen asleep on his chair. (There goes the job training, I think. Predictably, he won’t return after the break.)

A few minutes later Marisol returns, still crooked. She has only managed to type 20 words per minute and is now branded a liar.

Marisol argues that she hasn’t typed in over a year and that it’s hard to type wearing long artificial nails. But her instructors keep insisting, “You lied to us!”

Marisol finally breaks down and starts crying. Three instructors now comfort her, handing her Kleenex and telling her not take the critique too personally.

Watching the scene, STRIVE seems like a mix of Jerry Springer (poor people making asses out of themselves), Montel (“You are not alone with your feelings. I can help you…”), Survivor (only the toughest survive) and The Osbournes (a happy, dysfunctional family).

“Does it go a bit overboard?” Ron Mincy poses the rhetorical question when I share my concerns. Then he knocks on the office desk that separates us as if to support his argument. “They are unlikely to get treated with the same level of cruelty in the workplace. Having gone through STRIVE,” he continues, “they may be better prepared to deal with the disappointments of human interaction in the workplace than they would be otherwise.”

Harry Holzer is a professor of public policy at Georgetown University and co-author of Reconnecting Disadvantaged Young Men. While talking to Holzer on the phone I remembered a scene I had witnessed at a training: an instructor fiercely insisting that one student push the classroom’s wall in an attempt to bring it down.

“I ain’t doing it,” the student said, afraid to be ridiculed by his classmates. But the instructor wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“Do it!” He ordered. “You are going to have a boss who demands really unreasonable stuff from you.”

Harry Holzer dismissed my concern about whether it is ethical to put disadvantaged people in such absurd and unpleasant situations.

“It may be true that more successful black or white people wouldn’t tolerate that, but this is a very different population,” he said. “You have to remember, we are not talking about the working poor. We are talking about the non-working poor. STRIVE is trying to get them ready for the first step. To compare that to a typical white middle class person is not what you want to do. The question is what is effective for this population.”

Effectiveness is, in fact, the question here. Although Holzer and Mincy are utterly optimistic about STRIVE’s approach, they both lament that no studies have been done to prove its effectiveness.

STRIVE became a booming success after 60 Minutes aired two enthusiastic segments on the organization in the mid-90s. Their underlying message? “Finally there is an answer to the African-American unemployment problem: STRIVE’s attitudinal training.” The government offered STRIVE funding without strings attached. Whitney Houston wanted to make a documentary, and Spike Lee wanted to make a movie. But outsiders would have interfered too much with the program’s mission of helping the poor, one STRIVE employee huffed.

Today STRIVE National operates on a yearly budget of $6 million ($3.5 million for New York alone) and maintains 19 sites throughout the country. It recently expanded to Tel Aviv and Great Britain.

STRIVE claims to be more effective than conventional job training programs and attributes part of its success to its retention methods—graduates are followed and coached by a team of social workers for several years. STRIVE helps negotiate between employers and employees when problems occur. It has 400 affiliate employers throughout the city, some of whom are willing to hire black ex-offenders, the population hardest to place in the job market.

Of the initial applicants who are able to graduate from the four-week boot camp, STRIVE places about 75% into jobs, with an average of 70% still employed after two years. But without a closer evaluation, it remains unclear whether the ones who start the program are really better off than the ones who don’t.

“STRIVE has a radical way of doing business,” Ron Mincy, who has helped STRIVE evaluate their model, tells me, not without admiration. “However,” he quickly adds, “the question is: Does it work and can you demonstrate its effectiveness by using a random assignment evaluation, which is a more rigorous evaluation of this model?”

One question I asked of both Holzer and Mincy was whether changing people’s attitude is the right way to start, as opposed to, for example, providing education. “Do you want to spend serious money on someone who is not able to get up in the morning?” Mincy asks.

STRIVE demands its students prove their readiness for subsequent investment. Accordingly, instructor Joseph Perez asks his class: “What would you do with $5,000?” Once all the hoodies and facial piercings are removed, every student has to come up with an answer. The students’ eyes glow with the prospect of so much money. Mike says he would pay all his fines and summonses. Devon would invest in a franchise and in stocks.

Perez now tells the class that $5,000 is exactly what STRIVE spends on training, job placement, and two-year follow-up for each of them. He then modifies the question: “Why should I spend $5,000 on you?”

Giggles subside and the class turns silent and serious. “Would you spend $5,000 on anyone in this bunch?” Perez asks. The students shake their heads. “Hood-face,” he jokes to a student who puts up a tough front. “Give me a smile, or I don’t have anything for you.”

The racism many of STRIVE’s clientele have encountered is acknowledged, but like their personal baggage, not accepted as an excuse for misbehavior. “Yes, the world around us is racist,” Perez tells the class. “We can’t change that.” Instead the students work on changing themselves. In the process they have to pay for every mistake they make.

To lose paperwork or fall asleep in class costs $5. Not standing up or failing to state one’s name before speaking costs $1.50. The money is dropped in a giant jar and later used to buy Webster dictionaries for those who can’t afford them and food for the graduation party.

“They are investing in themselves,” Gyasi Headen tells me.

STRIVE invests in a population that society and governmental institutions have long given up on. Young African-American males still struggle to find a place in the public conscience. Ron Mincy’s Black Males Left Behind shows that while the labor force participation rate of African-American women has slowly improved during welfare reform, the rate of black males without jobs has actually soared over the past 20 years. With higher incarceration rates, the number of black males with criminal justice experience has also risen (according to Holzer, one third of all young black men will spend some time in prison in the course of their lives). These facts make even those young black men who’ve never had any encounters with the justice system vulnerable to employment discrimination.

Additionally, the incentive to go to work is missing for many. Wages are often too low to survive, and many black males face the burden of having to make child support payments that take away the little they earn.

These complications beg the questions: Where to start? What are some possible solutions?

“I have millions of ideas. It gives me a headache,” Ron Mincy says an hour into our conversation, rubbing his temples. “My own view is that you can work on multiple things at the same time.”

Among the multiple things Mincy suggests are the subsidization of child support payments for low-income, non-custodial parents, programs to help men become responsible fathers, and sexual education for boys. Most importantly, gender, race and sexuality have to be incorporated into the discussion about African-American unemployment. And not just when the troubled men are being released from prison, but at a much earlier stage.

A few years ago, STRIVE introduced its attitudinal training in a high school, but the experiment failed. The school system didn’t allow firing and fining its students.

Is firing and fining people who have been neglected all their lives the best way to start? Can these chronic societal ills be cured without defining and addressing the specific problems and needs of African-American boys and men?

In view of the many tangled conflicts that African-Americans struggle with when it comes to finding and keeping work, STRIVE’s attitudinal training seems like a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.

The names of the students have been changed to protect their privacy.

Contributor

Sabine Heinlein

SABINE HEINLEIN is a freelance journalist, radio producer, and photographer who lives in Brooklyn. Her website is www.sabineheinlein.org.

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