You may call them soft skills or career readiness, but to guest speaker, trainer and work-based learning advocate Josh Davies, it’s simply known as work ethic. And it’s one of the most important pieces of student career development and exploration.

Davies, chief executive officer for The Center for Work Ethic Development, will be headlining the upcoming 2023 Iowa Work-Based Learning Coordinators Conference on April 4. Work-based learning coordinators, educators, school counselors and other staff will hear his thoughts on the importance of work-based learning during his keynote session, “20/20: Foresight, Not Hindsight.”

From his past experiences working with professionals from three continents, Davies brings a wealth of knowledge on workforce issues and skill development. He has been named one of the 2022 Outstanding Leaders by Education 2.0 and has been recognized for his work by the National Association of Workforce Development Professionals.

The Iowa Work-Based Learning Coordinators Conference will be held at the Prairie Meadows Conference Center in Altoona. The last day to register for the conference is Friday, March 31.

Staff from the Iowa Department of Education caught up with Davies to hear more about his philosophy on work ethic and why work-based learning is important for Iowa.

You’re the CEO for The Center for Work Ethic Development. Define what work ethic means in today’s world and why it’s so important to develop these skills with Iowa students.

What we’ve found is that people hate the term soft skills. Employers prefer phrasing it as work ethic to describe desired professional skills. It’s less ambiguous. Using the term soft skills also implies that they aren’t as important as technical skills, when actually they are an integral part of a person’s success in the workforce.

Through our research with employers, hiring managers and data from the U.S. Department of Labor on career competency, we’ve discovered that work ethic isn’t just one thing. It is comprised of the following seven foundational skills that we have defined as “Bringing your A-game.”

  1. Attitude. Have a positive attitude and outlook on your career. 
  2. Attendance. Be on time and ready to go. 
  3. Appearance. This isn’t just what you wear but also includes your social media presence. 
  4. Ambition. Do more than the minimum to add value. 
  5. Acceptance. This involves accepting your boss, coworkers and company rules.
  6. Appreciate. Take time to appreciate the people and customers you serve and interact with. 
  7. Accountability. Do what you say you’re going to do – even if no one is watching.

Developing work ethic through these seven foundational skills can help prepare students in the future workforce and are universal across every career pathway.

As the keynote speaker for the upcoming Iowa Work-Based Learning Conference, how do work-based learning programs, established in the classroom and reinforced through hands-on learning experiences, help to develop strong work ethic skills and college and career pathways?

There are four pillars where skills are being developed: family, school, work and social media/popular culture. We’re now finding that fewer skills are being developed at home, so schools are shouldering a lot of that burden.

However, work-based learning and career and technical education (CTE) programs can often be overlooked in comparison to other priorities within school districts. High-quality work-based learning programs can truly help to engage students and allow them to develop necessary skills in the classroom as well as the workplace. These are skills that students won’t be able to build in other places, so it’s vital to recognize the importance of work-based learning. It’s a must for our schools.

What supports can educators implement to help develop student work ethic?

First, focus on the WIIFM, otherwise known as what’s in it for me? Instead of just telling students the things they need to do, help them understand why it’s a benefit for them to strengthen their skill set in these areas.

Additionally, set clear expectations with them. Students don’t know what they don’t know. If work starts at 8 a.m., they may think 8ish is acceptable because they have not experienced workplace expectations yet. Communicate clear expectations with students on what is accepted practice and watch them learn something new.
Community partnerships play a significant role in work-based learning and student development. In what ways do you think community partners can help support the success of students and the future workforce?

Every way. Whether it’s employers, parents, leaders or other advocates, community partners play a huge part in student success. I think one of the great things of moving from just paid work experiences to work-based learning programs is that it removes a lot of stigma from career and technical education. CTE students used to be seen as kids who weren’t smart enough for college. In comparison, students who were a part of more traditional internships were never labeled that way. It’s a philosophy shift. Exposing students to career pathways through work-based learning in any field is a win for the workforce. Community partners who get involved help to reinforce that message and support the program.

If a student approached you and asked what the secret recipe is for reaching their full potential in the workforce, what would you tell them?

There’s a simple strategy to keep in mind. It’s the 1 percent approach. Strive to be 1 percent better each day. You don’t have to try to do everything or learn everything at once. Small improvements add up. If you’re 1 percent better every day for 40 days, think of how much improved you’ll be at the end of those 40 days. Small changes are easy to do and can lead to large, fundamental shifts.

Any other thoughts?

For work-based learning professionals and educators, we need to be preparing for the future in a Wayne Gretzky-style. When Gretzky was asked why he was so good at hockey, he replied that he didn’t skate to where the puck is. He skated to where the puck is going. We need to be where work-based learning and education is going.

The challenges we’re facing in helping students grow and develop their work ethic are universal. And we have a great opportunity everywhere to join together, help them develop skills and find success, no matter what career pathway they choose.

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