I was reading a piece by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman the other day when I came across a quote that stuck with me.
Friedman's essay was about successful, job-creating communities in middle America. He wound up in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where he interviewed Roane County Executive Ron Woody.
Woody said employers in Roane County report problems filling jobs because too many applicants can't pass drug tests and/or don't have even basic "soft skills." Woody went on to explain the concept of soft skills: "Employers just want someone who will get up, dress up, show up, shut up and never give up."
Or as another Woody — Woody Allen — once said: "Eighty percent of success is showing up."
It also reminded me of a saying popularized by former NFL coach Bill Parcells who insists: "The most important ability is avail-ability."
Notice a pattern here? Just getting where you need to be, when you need to be there, and with a good attitude is more than half the battle in staying gainfully employed.
It strikes me that these quotes shine a light on the foundations of parenthood. If kids don't learn these basic life skills by the time they leave home, they have little chance of succeeding in what we used to call "the world of work."
Our own children, sons ages 15 and 10, are working through the soft-skills progression — get up, dress up, show up, shut up and never give up — with varying degrees of success.
Let's take them one at a time.
For nine months a year, the "get up" part takes care of itself in our household. My older son attends a high school that starts at 7:10 a.m. That makes his regular wake-up time a predawn 6 a.m.
There is no soft way to wake a 15-year-old boy at 6 a.m., so I have established a three-step process. I flip on the lights, then drop my normal speaking voice a full octave and say, "Buddy, it's time to get up." Next, I do a quick about-face and leave, which forestalls negotiations. I learned the "bass voice" trick from my U.S. Army master sergeant father who could wake me up from a dead sleep from 30 yards away by simply clearing his throat.
In the soft-skills code, I think "dress up" means to be wearing clothes suitable for the task at hand and otherwise tending to one's grooming and personal hygiene.
This is where Mom is in charge of quality control.
She is the final gatekeeper at the back door if the boys have on any hideously mismatched clothes or if they have failed to tame a cowlick. She is also capable of sniffing out, from a good distance, undeodorized armpits or yucky breath.
Our 10-year-old son is convinced he does not stink, but he does. Meanwhile, our older boy neutralizes body odor by taking several untimed showers a day.
I think they are progressing nicely on this front.
For now, this is a parental responsibility since neither of the boys can drive. That said, they both prefer to be early to appointments and stress about being late. This is where participating in team sports helps. You learn quickly that arriving late to practice or games is a good way to lose playing time. In the adult world, it's also a good way to lose a job.
Our sons grew up in a generation that considers "shut up" to be a vulgarity. I take an old-school view and consider it more of an indelicate way of saying, "Follow directions from your parents, teachers and employers courteously and without debate."
I'm afraid that too many children today believe that any instructions they are given are negotiable suggestions. This is an especially toxic point of view in the workplace, where most baby boomer and gen-X managers grew up in eras where there was still widespread respect for the chain of command.
Sure, we might grumble and commiserate about difficult boss directives, but mostly we swallowed hard and followed orders. Today's younger workers, not so much.
It falls on us parents to teach our strong-willed children that there is a time for debate and a time to accept difficult tasks without comment.
A.K.A. "shut up."
Never give up
In his excellent book, "Hillbilly Elegy," Yale law school graduate J.D. Vance talks about working manual-labor jobs when he was younger and noticing how some co-workers simply quit after a day or two.
Perhaps the work was too strenuous for their liking or they simply had no training in perseverance. Whatever the case, throwing in the towel was their first impulse.
Children have a million opportunities to quit: sports, homework, hobbies, friendships. In our house this year, we have talked some about mental toughness and how to hang on when things are not going great.
In fact, I think if I could wish my children one trait it would be perseverance. It's the advanced character trait that makes the other skills work together for good.
Contact Mark Kennedy at 423-757-6645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.