Recent graduates might be great at accounting or coding, but they need a little help when it comes to dinner parties and dress codes.
Many members of the class of 2023 were freshmen in college in the spring of 2020, when campuses shuttered due to the Covid-19 pandemic. They spent the rest of their college years partially in virtual mode with hybrid internships and virtual classes. Students didn’t learn some of the so-called soft skills they might have in the past by osmosis on the job, from mentors and by practicing on campus.
To address deficiencies in everything from elevator chitchat to presentation skills, companies, universities and recruiters are coming up with ways to train new hires and give them clear advice. They are eating it up.
Recent graduate Joslynn Odom had her first hybrid internship after her junior year and found working in person to be draining thanks to wearing professional attire and staying energetic consistently. It made her realise that she needed to sharpen her communication and networking skills.
Programming arranged by her college, Miami University in Ohio, has since helped. Just before graduation she attended an etiquette dinner where she learned to follow the lead of more senior leaders over dinner: Eat at their pace, discuss neutral topics and avoid personal questions. When buttering bread, it is best to put a slab on one’s own bread plate before applying it to a roll, and when cutting food, holding the fork hump-side up is best, she said.
“Knowing that, I feel more confident,” she said.
William Lopez-Gudiel, 23 years old, interned last year for Warner Bros. Discovery and found a presentation on office dynamics especially helpful. It covered dress codes, navigating interpersonal relationships and what working in person is like, he said.
The company said it has offered similar guidance in the past. Some of it felt like common sense to Lopez-Gudiel, who graduated in December from George Mason University and is a self-described extrovert.
But Lopez-Gudiel ultimately appreciated the information, realising that the pandemic may have limited what soft skills he might have learned at past work experiences. He will be working at the company full time as a software developer.
Many soon-to-be graduates are itching to get rid of Zoom and work face-to-face with co-workers where their interpersonal skills will be quickly tested. In an April survey of about 700 Class of 2023 graduates from the virtual student-health company TimelyCare, 53% said they wanted a fully in-person work environment, while 21% said they wanted to be fully remote.
Graduates’ disrupted college experience might mean they struggle with the basics reading colleagues’ cues or navigating a meeting, said Heidi Brooks, a senior lecturer in organizational behavior at Yale University’s School of Management. In class, when students didn’t have cameras on, that was harder to determine.
New hires will need to learn “those nuances of, how do you actually create enough connection, visibility, ability to manoeuvre,” she said.
The missing piece for young professionals who have graduated since 2020, in fact, has been no real proximity to mentorship and leadership, recruiters say.
“This is so much more important today,” said Sandy Torchia, vice chair of talent and culture at KPMG, whose full-time hires this summer and fall will go to the firm’s training facility in Florida where they’ll get new presentation training.
They’ll practice scenarios involving conflict within teams, plus the basics of talking in person—as simple as how to introduce yourself to a client or colleague. Key tips include maintaining eye contact, taking pauses and avoiding jargon. It is also best to listen carefully to others, and to adjust your introduction to highlight pieces of your background that will be most interesting to them.
The company has found that some young professionals are stiff, talk too fast, or rely too much on filler words like “um,” as they presented. Some of the employees said they wanted to feel more comfortable, too.
Allan Rubio, 21 years old was a freshman at Dartmouth College in the spring of 2020. Online classes continued all through his sophomore year, which Rubio completed from his family’s home in Bangkok. Course sessions stretched to 11 p.m. or sometimes 2 a.m. local time, he said.
Professors were far more flexible on deadlines during the pandemic, amenable to extensions if students asked, he said. When Rubio had an in-person internship last summer, he realised his manager, team or client depended on him meeting deadlines.
Presentation skills are also something Rubio needs to learn better, he said. He had presented virtually in academic classes, and often kept a few thoughts and scripted language in a Notes file on screen—or on a separate device nearby. Once on a video call, he said, he blamed an internet delay while he stopped talking mid sentence and collected his thoughts.
None of those aids could help him through presenting in-person on stage at a hackathon on campus. It was more difficult than he expected, he said.
Since then Rubio, who graduated this month, has rehearsed extensively before live presentations. He lays out key points and slims a longer script into bullet points before memorising key areas.
Though new hires are digital natives, today’s graduates’ professional email skills need improvement, said Jialan Wang, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Many won’t acknowledge important messages but will expect a response from professors immediately, even over holidays, she said.
Michigan State University’s business-school career centre has urged companies to be explicit about what students should expect at work, to over-communicate details about how a first day will play out, what to wear and what people typically do for lunch.
The school last year began requiring many business students to take classes on soft skills in the workplace, after observing that students are more awkward and unsure when they network than they used to be, said Marla McGraw, director of career management.
The program goes step by step through an in-person networking conversation. In one handout, the centre instructs students to introduce themselves by their first and last name. “STOP! Let them tell you their name,” it reads.
Later it urges the students to share that they are interested in hearing about opportunities at the company and share that they follow the company closely, are familiar with its products or services or know someone who interned there, among other options.
“STOP! Pause for only a few seconds to see if they offer any questions or input on your above comments. They may ask you for your resume.”
Students should keep an eye out for signs that a person is trying to end a conversation, McGraw added. Someone might begin to gather their things, or look around the room, signalling they need to talk to another person. Often, one can facilitate a smooth exit by saying, “Well, thanks so much. It’s been a pleasure.”
Professional-services firms PricewaterhouseCoopers and Protiviti have had to tell some young workers what types of clothes are appropriate, including for client-site visits.
Many people are dressing less formally, said Scott Redfearn, Protiviti’s executive vice president of global human resources.
Now the company defines what it means by business casual—including slacks, tailored denim, sport jackets, dresses, skirts, collared shirts, blouses, sweaters and professional footwear—and explains why it’s important to maintain a serious professional image. The company also relays that when it is appropriate to wear bluejeans, darker hues without rips are best, he said.
The company has tried to be proactive when it shares broad guidance about attire, but when a worker shows up in athleisure or flip-flops, that is best handled with a one-on-one conversation.
“Working hybrid brings a lot more decisions to the individual employee,” Redfearn said.
During the pandemic, the firm extended its onboarding process to a series of small-group virtual meetings that took place over a full year. One topic includes making conversation as a social skill, he said. It includes an improv-based public-speaking workshop, where in one prompt, participants need to describe themselves in three words quickly, going with their first impulse. The company said the sessions help workers to find their authentic communication styles.
Protiviti hosts social gatherings around in-person meetings so that workers can practice.
Redfearn said he gives a pep talk to new graduates, urging them to introduce themselves around the office, stick their hand out and smile. Another tip: Have a prepared question ready to ask if needed.
—Ray A. Smith contributed to this article.