Competence Is Only the Beginning
Finally, they called me: I'd been accepted and would be starting soon—less than a month after submitting my application. I was so relieved to begin a new phase of my life.
The program is divided into two parts: four months of classroom training, followed by a six-month internship at a corporation. I was looking forward to building on my computer training, but soon found out that I needed more than just technical skills to become a successful worker.
The instructors referred frequently to "hard" skills and "soft" skills. Hard skills are the things you learn from a textbook, like how to fix a computer or complete math problems. Soft skills are things that aren't learned from textbooks, but are just as important in the workplace—things like customer service and teamwork.
Together, soft and hard skills constitute "professional skills"—a new concept to me. I'd always assumed that a worker's ability to carry out the tasks he's been hired to do is all that matters. But while going through the program, I realized that the workplace demands more than just competence. It requires me to interact with coworkers, clients, and other business contacts. If I can't communicate effectively with these people, I can't do my job.
A Real Pro
I was expected to put my professional skills into practice immediately. An example: Often when I wanted to use the word "mine"—as in, "that book is mine"—I would incorrectly use the word "mines." The staff members pointed out that this is incorrect; adding an "s" on the end makes the word a plural noun, as in exploding landmines. Whenever any student used "mines" when meaning "mine," staff members would say "Boom!"—like the sound actual landmines make—to let us know we had slipped up. Eventually, we caught on.
At first, things like that didn't seem like a big deal. Why would anyone care if we added an extra "s" to a word? Why did it matter if we used the wrong grammar in a sentence?
As time went on, however, we came to realize that little things like grammar can make a good or bad first impression on an employer. Getting the basics wrong can signal that I'm not interested, or not serious enough to fit into a professional environment, even if that's not my intention. It wasn't just grammar: Things like stretching in front of others, dressing inappropriately, not paying attention while someone is giving a speech, or sending improperly formatted e-mails can seem unprofessional.
That's when I realized why many of my earlier job applications had gone unanswered: I had been e-mailing potential employers without using subject lines, proper greetings, or formal sign-offs. E-mails missing these things are considered unprofessional and many employers delete them without even reading them. Such seemingly small details can make the difference between finding a job and being left out in the cold.