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Technical school students learn interpersonal workplace skills

Greater Lawrence Technical School student Josuz Urena (left) spoke during a workshop on acquiring communication skills for the workplace.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Greater Lawrence Technical School student Josuz Urena (left) spoke during a workshop on acquiring communication skills for the workplace.

Reading, writing, ’rithmetic. For the three ‘r’s’ there are time-tested lesson plans and standardized tests to ensure student mastery, but in today’s highly competitive job market, employers want workers who can do more than demonstrate academic accomplishment and technical know-how.

They’re looking to hire candidates with an upbeat attitude and the ability to collaborate with others, so-called soft skills that can’t be gleaned from a textbook. So how do young workers, who have limited, if any, on-the-job experience, polish these skills?

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At Greater Lawrence Technical School in Andover and Greater Lowell Technical High School in Tyngsborough, students are learning lessons in communication, teamwork, and personal responsibility in workshops offered by Dakota Systems, Inc., a Dracut company that designs and manufactures equipment systems that process inert, toxic, flammable, and corrosive fluids for use in high-tech industries.

“I took the workshop because I thought it would look good on my resume, but I ended up learning a lot more than I thought I would,” said Joey Kilmartin, 18, of Dracut, a senior in the culinary shop at Greater Lowell Tech. “I learned to choose my words carefully, that it’s not always what you say, but how you say it. Things can easily be taken the wrong way.”

For a generation that is more comfortable with texting than talking, the lesson is vital.

“I’m very shy,” said Estafany Polanco, 19, of Lawrence, a senior in the cosmetology program at Greater Lawrence Technical. “This workshop has helped me to be more open, more comfortable speaking to other people. I can look them in the eye now.”

John M. Thomas, president of Dakota Systems, said he hopes that “by combining the technical skills taught in the schools with the techniques learned in these workshops, we will produce future employees who can assimilate more easily into the workplace.”

The workshops are tailored to seniors who will be looking to land their first full-time jobs. Developed by Bailey Kaplan, human resources manager at the firm, the workshops encourage students to explore what guides their decisions, and then build on their strengths to find their individual voices.

“At 18, these kids have a moral compass, something that shapes who they are,” said Kaplan. “It guides their actions, how they get to know new people, and how they relate to co-workers. By the end of the workshop, they understand themselves a little better and begin to realize it’s OK not to like everyone they work with, that there’s still a way to maintain their voice and feel empowered without inviting conflict.”

The workshop lessons were inspired by a course Kaplan teaches at Dakota Systems. One of the company classes included cooperative education students from the two technical schools. The students said that they wished they had learned the skills before going on co-op.

“They thought it would have helped them to be better employees,” Kaplan said.

At Dakota Systems, productivity has spiked since the introduction of the soft-skills lessons a year ago. Kaplan hopes to foster similar results through the high school workshops, which she teaches with her colleague, Rey Martinez, a production supervisor at Dakota Systems who graduated in 1995 from Greater Lawrence Technical.

The pilot program, launched at both schools this year, is expected to be an ongoing addition to the curriculum.

According to Maureen Griffin, director of cooperative education and placement at Greater Lowell Technical, the workshop is having a positive impact.

“Shop teachers are telling me that the kids are acting as role models — their ability to handle conflict in the shop with other students is excellent,” Griffin said. “Anytime we can partner with an employer to come in and speak with our students, I think they walk away with a wealth of information they can build their career on.”

Added Lisa Berube, co-operative education liaison at Greater Lawrence Technical: “Many of our students have never been on co-op; they’re getting ready to graduate and move into the workforce. We’ve given them a lot of preparation in terms of resume writing and interviewing skills, but still, they haven’t been exposed to a real-life work setting. They don’t understand how important communication is in the workplace. This workshop gives them an opportunity to learn that from someone who was literally sitting in their seat not so many years ago. What he says really resonates with them.”

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.
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