When “soft skills” help pay the bills



“The best young workers,” my friend told me, “are kids who come from a large family or who grew up on a farm. It seems like they’re the only ones who know how to work hard and get along.”

We were talking about a newspaper story we’d read about the absence of “soft skills” among manufacturing workers. In the article, company reps complained that they’re not seeing enough dedication, punctuality or teamwork among their employees. Because many new hires come in with no previous work experience, employers are realizing they have to teach them how to act in the workplace at the same time they’re teaching them the skills needed for the job.

My friend, who has been managing the same business for almost 25 years, has hired scores of young adults over the years. The ones who worked out the best have been those with a sense of responsibility and initiative they’d learned as children. They already knew how to take orders and share the load, having spent years doing chores and helping out alongside siblings. At work they recognized right away that they were getting paid in exchange for good results, not just for showing up.

Having grown up in a small family in the suburbs, I’d never slopped pigs or wrestled for a spot at the dinner table, but I told my friend that I thought I turned out okay. “That’s because your parents were self-employed,” my friend reasoned. “You grew up watching them work hard and take care of their customers.”

This discussion really got me thinking about the important role that parents, aunts, uncles, teachers and neighbors play in preparing young people for success in all aspects of their careers. Adult mentors can make a life-long impact on a youth’s way of approaching work. I know they did in my life, especially when I started my first paying job, at age 11, to earn money for ice skates.

That winter, the neighbor boy got new skates for Christmas: a beautiful brand-name pair that smelled like the new leather of a baseball glove and flashed sunlight off their shiny blades. My skates had rusty blades and smelled like dirty socks—I wanted new ones!


The soft skills lessons began right there. First, I learned about taking initiative and solving problems. In response to my begging, my parents told me that nothing was stopping me from having new skates. I would simply need to figure out a way to make money and buy them myself. After some thinking and asking around, I discovered an opportunity to deliver newspapers in our neighborhood.

The next lesson was in professional communication skills. Signing up for a delivery route meant calling the newspaper, and my folks urged me to make the call myself. They coached me on what to say and then walked out of the room as I dialed the number. I still clearly remember the gut-gnawing anxiety of that phone conversation. Sadly, I learned that there were no routes available. Another kid already delivered to 40 subscribers on my street.

I talked to my one of my teachers about the call and was soon learning several new soft skills: planning, goal-setting, sales and negotiation. With my teacher’s help, I realized that there were a lot of potential subscribers in my neighborhood. If I could sign them up for the paper, I’d have a route of my own. We came up with a plan: I’d give my neighbors the paper for a week—for free—and then ask them to subscribe. The manager at the paper was intrigued by my request to buy 50 papers a day at half price. “Kid,” he said, “if you’re willing to work for free, I’ll give you the papers for free. If you get 25 customers, you’ve got a paper route.”

When my Uncle Bobby, an entrepreneur, heard about my plan, he gave me a lesson in professionalism. His advice was to work hard and do a better job than the other “paper boy” in our neighborhood. With his encouragement, I neatly folded every paper, delivered it as early as possible, and left it at the door, dry and safe. He even paid for a box of business cards that said “Kenny Gonyer, Newspaper Delivery” and included my phone number. I slipped a card and an order form in every paper.

Unfortunately, after a week of hard work, I was told that I hadn’t sold enough subscriptions to start a new route. I was crushed. My parents consoled me at first, but then imparted to me a skill they’d learned from a year of being self-employed: the habit of persistence. They convinced me that I wasn’t finished yet—there was one more thing to do.

My mom drove me to every house where I’d left free samples. I knocked on the door, offered my business card, asked if they liked their papers, then asked if they would like to subscribe. Maybe it was the business card … maybe it was the neatly folded papers …

maybe it was this four-foot nine-inch tall kid so seriously trying so hard to close a sale. By the end of the evening, I had 40 subscribers. Within a few months, I also had my ice skates.

More than three decades later, I don’t remember what brand of skates I bought or how much money I earned every week delivering newspapers. I do remember the people who helped me—parents, relatives, teachers and others—and all of the lessons they taught me about how to be successful in my first business venture. Having drawn on those skills countless times since, at school, at work and at home, I’m profoundly grateful for their investment.

Ken Gonyer is Director of Member Care at Park View Federal Credit Union (www.pvfcu.org) in Harrisonburg, Va. KAREN GONYER is a real estate agent with KlineMay Realty in Harrisonburg, Va. Email questions to .


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