12 Voices: Workforce and Career: Evaluating Your Strengths and Weaknesses

“What are you good at?” 

I asked this question of a 20-year-old young man seeking to participate in a job training program. He froze, wide-eyed, unable to respond and finally said, “I don’t know. No one has ever asked me that before.” He’d lived 2 decades without anyone encouraging him to identify his strengths or potential contributions.  

Karin Norington-Reaves

The question was intended to help him be more than a jobseeker– a passive participant in a dance that all too often places all of the power in the hands of the employer. I wanted him to consider a career, a fulfilling one, one in which he might actually be compensated for something he enjoyed doing.  

There are those who will say this perspective is an elite one—that people struggling to provide for themselves and their families simply don’t have the luxury of being selective. This wrongly suggests though that satisfying work is reserved for a few, unavailable to all.   

I submit that if we change our approach to preparing young people for work, we shift the paradigm for the next generation.  

The interactions between a prospective employer and employee are all too often seen as a one-way street—as though the only determining factor in employment is whether the company wants you.  

We are solidly in an age of online applications, personality assessments and applicant tracking systems as the gateway to employment—impersonal arms lengths transactions that strip applicants of the opportunity to connect with a manager, demonstrate their individuality, be personable. For example, one national healthcare retailer’s entry-level application consists of an online assessment comprised of 20 initial questions, followed by 30 more and rounded out by an additional 75, if you have the endurance and luck to advance beyond the first two sets. Before committing the time and energy required to participate in that process, wouldn’t it be helpful to know your strengths, likes and disinterests? 

In a national survey, employers reported that their greatest skill needs are: judgment, critical thinking, ability to work in a team and interpersonal skills. Do you know where you learned these skills? Interpersonal skills aren’t necessarily taught, they are honed through lived experiences. Similarly, expertise in teamwork only evolves from working in a team.  Clearly, all of these things have to be both taught and practiced, just like understanding one’s strengths and aptitudes. 

Fortunately, for Devon, the young man who struggled to identify his strengths, his participation in a training program ultimately helped him not only answer the question, but also navigate the process of securing his first job.  

And now he was armed with new questions to consider: Is this work that I want to do? Is the company stable? Are these people that I want to work with? Will I be able to advance, and if so how much time will pass before I am considered? How are employee contributions valued/rewarded?  

Not all of these questions are relevant to everyone in every employment situation. Not every job will align with our ultimate goals. Many jobs are simply a means to an end, while others are career builders.  

Regardless of the underlying purpose of a job, we need to encourage young adults to use early opportunities to learn by doing while also exploring the unique talents that they contribute to an employer.   

What are you good at? The time spent deliberately reflecting on this question may prove as valuable as any paycheck.   

Karin Norington-Reaves is the CEO of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership. For more information on The Partnership and its services visit workforceboard.org  

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