Four Key Skills That Boost Employment Chances

/ May 24, 2016

By Michelle Halman 

Since graduating many years ago, I have spent my career working with, advocating for and teaching life skills to people with disabilities and other job barriers (a huge part of life skills is job skills!). I started my career teaching job skills and providing job placement to people with chronic and persistent mental illnesses and/or substance abuse issues. I moved on to becoming a Support Coordinator and then a Behavior Specialist with the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Before coming to TennesseeWorks, I was the Program Coordinator at Project SEARCH at Vanderbilt, a job training program for people with disabilities, where I worked for more than 10 years.

Michelle smiling

Michelle Halman

Through the years, I have had many conversations with my colleagues, families and transition teachers regarding how much job-readiness skills are taught in school and at home with students they know. The common answer has been, “as much as possible” and “I wish I knew the best things to teach regarding employment!” With that being said, I wanted to give you the inside scoop on some transferable skills (skills that can be used in most every job) from someone who has provided job training, placement and follow-along (helping people keep their jobs). Mastering these skills can give your student a huge advantage when a job opportunity presents itself.

First, there is some basic technology. Email. Ensuring your student has a work-appropriate email address is key. I have heard many stories from Human Resources representatives about email addresses that were silly or just stated WAY too much about a person’s interests. The email address and password should be very basic and easy for your student to remember. There are times where your student will need to log onto a work computer. Calling parents to get their email address and password does not exude confidence in the employer. Teachers and parents can practice checking the email address each day. Since smartphones can alert when there are emails and actually read the emails aloud, this is just a habit that needs to be built into the day. Employers do not want to get emails from parents, and they typically do not text their employees. Teachers can work on this skill by communicating to students through their email addresses. Reminders to communicate something to their parents could be sent to the student’s email address.

When someone asks your student how his or her weekend was, does the student reply with, “Great! How was yours?” or is it typically, “Good”? Social skills are tough, I understand. When I taught basic social skills for work, I broke it down to the very basics and practiced it all the time. I explained what a “rhetorical question” was. “When someone you are not best friends with at work asks you how your weekend was, it’s important to say it was fine, even if it wasn’t, and then you need to ask how their weekend was, even though you may not really care. The key to this is practice, though. You can use it each day with the question “How was your day at school?” or teachers could ask, “How was your lunch?”

At work, conversations in the breakroom are also important. Teaching your student such conversations are what will build or prevent relationships at work seemed to be the key when I was teaching it. Everyone wants to have friends. When a student realizes that certain topics or long periods of talking about one of their “interests” could prevent someone from wanting to eat with them in the breakroom, this made a difference, in my experience. In the working world, people can choose how they spend their breaks. Giving your student real feedback and working on breakroom skills builds “natural supports” at work who advocate for your student when the parent, teacher or job coach is not around. Building a list of topics that are safe for work conversations and practicing them at dinner is a great way to start. For instance, some topics could be:

1. What do you do here at the company?
2. How long have you worked at the company?
3. What is your favorite part of your job?
4. Do you have a long commute to work?

Some examples of questions that were typically asked when I first started teaching this topic each year were:

1. What is your favorite color?
2. Where do you live?
3. Do you have a boyfriend?

I think you can see why those questions don’t work very well in the workplace.

Follow-up questions to their co-worker’s answers to the work-related questions could be the next, more advanced skills-building step.

Lack of time management skills has always been the biggest reason people have lost their jobs. Yes, people with disabilities can get fired. I am going to go back to smartphones again. A smartphone can be an item that a job coach can request as an accommodation. Ensuring your student knows how to set a timer or tell Siri (iPhone) or Google (android) to set a timer is a skill that can be mastered in school and at home. There are great apps that can give a visual countdown of the time that is set (I have used 30/30 and Activity Timer with success). Another part of time management is for your student to understand everything personal needs to be done during the break. For instance, this was how new trainees typically approached their breaks initially: The students see it’s about 15 minutes till break so they leave their workstation, get their lunchbox, go to the bathroom, call/text a family member and then stand by the time clock in order to wait for the time to clock out for lunch. Or, the student will eat his or her lunch until it is gone … no matter if the break time is officially over. In the working world, there will typically not be someone that goes up to employees and reminds them to clock in or says, “Sure, just come back to work when you are done eating.” This is where the smartphone comes in. If your student knows when and how to set the timer on the phone, they are one step ahead of everyone else in the “job readiness” department.

Finally, self-advocacy. Practice scenarios like this with your student: Give him or her some vague instructions like, “Go to a computer and type up your resume.” Hopefully, your student will say, “Mom/Teacher, I don’t know how to type a resume.” In my experience, this did not happen. Students typically thought they would get in trouble if they didn’t know how to do something or if they needed additional instructions, so they just went to a computer and clicked around on some things waiting for me to ask if they needed help. Your students need to be able to advocate for themselves when you are not around. If they do not understand how to do something, or if they don’t understand a question, knowing it is OK to ask for clarification is a great skill to have.

If your students become well acquainted with these work skills, they are well on their way to employment!

Teachers, be sure to check out additional resources at

Michelle Halman now serves as an educational consultant with TennesseeWorks.

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