If you're not careful, your coat may accidentally be given away, Marla Burton, training coordinator of McLean, Va.-based Training Futures, warns visitors. A nonprofit that prepares low-income individuals for life as entry-level corporate staffers, the organization's offices, where classes are given in subjects ranging from basic math to speaking skills and professional etiquette, is already buzzing with activity at 8 a.m. on the day Training magazine dropped in for a visit.
The reason your coat's in danger has nothing to do, of course, with the honesty of the Training Futures staff or its students (the organization screens its prospects much too carefully for anything like that). Rather, it's that the program collects used coats and business attire, which are then donated to students. Although readiness for the corporate world involves more than wearing the right outfit, the transformation that students (often foreign-born with degrees earned in other countries that can't be used here) undergo, has as much to do with how they feel about themselves as what they know.
More than simply understanding how to use an Excel spreadsheet and correspond properly with clients, Futures graduates should feel like they fit in, Burton says. Volunteers from organizations such as the CIA and Training Top 100 winner Booz Allen Hamilton, next-door neighbor and major Futures benefactor, play a large part, she notes. After receiving computer tutoring from 40 Booz Allen volunteers, for example, students may feel a little more at ease if the opportunity for an interview there ever arises. "When you go to Booz Allen, of course you can fit in," Burton says. "You're already professionals. It's only a matter of time before you find your place in the world."
By 8:15 a.m., students eager to make that transition into corporate life are ready for the day. They fill the conference rooms preparing for speeches they will give later to their instructors and peers on topics ranging from their life story to their favorite city; others are finishing homework on computers in the Futures practice lab. While students are welcome to use the office's conference rooms and computer lab before the day begins, the program is highly structured. Students sign in upon arrival. Each is assigned to one of three Futures supervisors, who in addition to tracking their daily comings and goings, checks in with them throughout the program to gauge their progress. "[They help] if you have any questions or problems or you were sick and didn't show up," a student giving an office tour explains. "Whatever kind of advice you need. Every Friday we meet one on one with our adviser."
Training sessions begin at 9 a.m., with participants divided into two groups as they circulate to classes such as Business Math in Office Procedures and the Speakers Club, in which they polish speaking skills. The day usually ends at 2 p.m., with 30 minutes to an hour budgeted for each class. To buoy students' spirits and keep them up to date on their former classmates' progress, a bulletin board lists all the job placements that have occurred since the last grads left the program. Placements range from the military to companies such as First Horizon and Verizon. Former graduates come back to tell their success stories.
It's 9 a.m., and about a dozen students ranging in age from early 20s to mid 40s are seated in the computer lab for class. Though an ethnically diverse mix of people, with one student in a head covering and most bearing an accent with African or South American roots, it is understood they only will speak "standard English" in the Training Futures office. A sign on one of the conference room walls tells them it's a rule here. There's a quote on the board at the front of the windowless, florescent-lit computer lab from Thomas Jefferson, "In a matter of style, swim with the current; in a matter of principle, stand like a rock." Quotes from famous people are regularly given to students to help them develop critical thinking skills and bring cultural or interpersonal issues to light for discussion.
"Is there any particular word or phrase that stands out to you?" instructor Dawn Boykins asks. "Does this quote have any particular meaning to you?" One student says the quote might mean to be easy-going and cooperative enough to go along with the way things are done overall, but that it may sometimes be necessary to disagree when it gets down to specific issues. "In life, in general, go with the flow, but in any particular situation, stand your ground," she says. Boykins pushes them further: "As you think about this quote, does it change anyone's view of life? Can you think of any time in your life when that quote might come into play?" A student named Lucia speaks up, slowly selecting the right words to express her sentiment. "In all improvements and progress-making, I'll go with the flow because I want a high-paying job, but I still want to be me. I'm still a person from Africa with an accent," she laughs.
With the philosophical covered, Boykins is off to more practical matters like the students' upcoming deadline for PowerPoint presentations. By class end, Boykins is able to show them the PowerPoint presentation they've created together, complete with slides on "Revenue by Quarter" and "Readying for Our Growth."
The computer instructional a wrap, the students head at 10 a.m. to their Business Math in Office Procedures class, with the dozen or so who were in the math session for the last hour swapping places. As in Boykins' class, the math tutorial kicks off with the discussion of a quote—from an altogether different source this time—the actor Michael Caine. " 'Be like a duck,' my mother used to tell me. 'Remain calm on the surface, and paddle like hell underneath,' " Laurie Carrigan, the program's business communication and business math instructor, reads aloud from the board. This discussion is more personal: One student talks about a time she was forced to check her temper at work after a co-worker drank from her soda can without asking; another says for the sake of maintaining a professional attitude, she sometimes pretends nothing is bothering her, even if she misses her family or has been fighting with her boyfriend.
Carrigan steers the conversation toward office politics; her goal is to illustrate for students why in an office environment, it's essential to stay unruffled, at least on the outside. "In your new job, what do you see yourself paddling hard toward?" she asks her pupils. Carrigan asks if they might have to "paddle hard" with their computer tasks, and just smile and say everything's all right when the boss asks how their assignment is coming. The class agrees, laughing, and starts to discuss strategies for appearing calm, with solutions ranging from the simple—stay smiling—to the more methodical. Carrigan advises they "give themselves time to paddle really hard" by, say, coming in early or staying late when necessary. She also encourages students to be patient with themselves and relax by doing deep breathing exercises.
A Special Guest
To get people over the workweek "hump," Futures treats students to a surprise guest speaker or experience every Wednesday as part of its Anything Can Happen series. Today, Kate Parker, a human resources executive with San Diego-based SAIC, a government contractor that provides project management services, stops by. Parker, who says she wanted to show the students that someone with a background similar to their own could rise to the high ranks of a major corporation, gives students a primer on workplace pitfalls. Parker, who says she was raised in public housing in Philadelphia as an African-American, but is also half Asian, explains that she and her four siblings were raised with the ethos of bettering themselves. Two are public school teachers in the projects; the other is an Alabama-based esthetician. "I started on welfare, and worked to another place in life," she says. Alongside perseverance, Parker credits her success with the ability to endure less than ideal experiences. "Part of being able to make it through life's traumas is being able to get through uncomfortable situations," she notes.
Parker also offers conflict-resolution guidelines. She reminds them to be respectful of future co-workers, and that it often takes more energy to mistreat a colleague than to be kind. "It takes more effort to ignore someone than to say 'hello,' " Parker advises. She stresses the importance of sincerity and trust. After all, she notes, you can even learn from the people you don't particularly care for. "I've raised my son to believe everyone you encounter in life has a purpose, even if it's just to show you that you don't want to be that person," Parker says. She says not to worry about the cultural differences they may have with their fellow staffers. "It's OK for us to be different in how we dress and communicate as long as we're respectful," she says.
Talk Me Up
The surprise presentation concludes around noon, and it's time for lunch. If at least a few trainees found it hard to eat that afternoon, it wouldn't have been surprising, given the speeches they would be giving in just an hour. By 1 p.m., the presenting students and their audience—fellow trainees and volunteer mentors—were seated in two conference rooms ready for the Speaker's Club to begin. Modeled on a public speaking education program designed by Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.-based Toastmasters International, a nonprofit organization devoted to enhancing public speaking skills, the program requires students to give 15-minute, peer-evaluated speeches. Evaluators listen for grammatical proficiency and articulation. There's even an "Uh" counter along with a timekeeper and "grammarian." Divided into two groups, the Communicators and Orators, trainees focused on personal hardship and triumph rather than career aspirations.
One of the first speakers recounts life in Madagascar and explains the grueling experience of passing a baccalaureate exam. There was a mixup in the grades posted, so she thought she failed, only to find out hours later she had actually passed. "In one day, I experienced both the joy of passing and the misery of failing," she says, laughing. The next speaker in the room, from Camaroon, speaks of her time in France and her love affair with chocolate. "I have to have chocolate every day," she says in mock desperation. "I tested all the chocolates in France!" Her audience laughs. She says now in the United States she's trying to follow the dietary guidance Futures gives its students on not eating too many sugary foods, but it's no use.
The next speaker, a Washington, D.C., area native, decided to simply tell his life story, including the 1964 car accident that killed his father and his experiences in Catholic school growing up, getting disciplined by nuns and monks. After working as a stock boy for women's clothing stores and attending community college, he worked as a warehouse driver and at a grocery store. He saved his money and even invested in a home of his own, but lost it after a messy divorce and an unexpected bout of unemployment. "In '97 I lost my job, and at the time, I was making $50,000 a year," he says. Unable to get back to that level of income since, he says he's hoping his studies at Futures will bring him greater job security.
Across the hall, one speaker passes around a photo album to illustrate the joys of London, and another steps up to the head of the conference room to discuss becoming a grandmother at 38. She recounts the humor of a gender mixup; the doctor said her daughter was having a boy, but gave birth to a healthy baby girl. She was delighted, of course, "but for the baby shower we had gotten everything in blue."
The last presenter for this second room of speakers takes a more serious note, asking the class to consider corporate ethics. He posits: Let's say the company you work for wants you to go along with a lie that will secure it more government contracts. The company wants to apply for these lucrative jobs using different names, so it can bypass bidding laws. What would you do? "Do you quit from a company that's unethical?" he asks. Hesitant at first to say what they would do, two students finally answer that they would quit. While it's important to keep your job, since it's your livelihood, corroborating in unethical business dealings will eventually come back to haunt you, they agree.
Now that the speeches are finished, it's time for the evaluators to read aloud any notes for improvement they've jotted down. One student went over his allotted time, another could benefit from looking at her notes more.
It's now 2 p.m., and training is over for the day, students gather at the sign-out area, and compliment one another on their speeches. Not surprisingly, some head to the computer lab to get right back to work.
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