College 'charm schools' fill gap

  • Article by: JON MARCUS , The Hechinger Report
  • Updated: January 5, 2013 - 9:06 PM

A generation of students immersed in texting and video games are getting a little social polish for the workplace.

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Michelle Chen (left) helps dress Jay McKenna (right) during "Dress for Success," a short class about how to dress on the job or for an interview, at MIT's 2012 Charm School.

Photo: Handout, Mct - Mct

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BOSTON - Massachusetts Institute of Technology students will return from their holiday break to experience something different from their usual studies -- but almost as important. It's the university's annual "Charm School," offering instruction in everything from how to make a first impression to how to dress for work to which bread plate to use.

Other colleges have started teaching students how to make small talk, deal with conflict, show up on time, follow business etiquette and communicate with co-workers.

These programs may be fun or even funny, but there's a serious purpose to them: to give students the kinds of social skills they need to get and keep jobs.

"Everybody here is smart," said Alana Hamlett, who codirects MIT's Charm School in Cambridge, Mass., which began about 20 years ago and is optional for students. But in a tough job market, she said, "this is one additional tool that will give you an edge. The key to being a step ahead is having those interpersonal skills and being able to work a room."

These are skills that employers complain graduates increasingly are arriving without.

"This is a generation with an average of 241 social media 'friends,' but they have trouble communicating in person," said Arthur Levine, the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, N.J., who has studied the current crop of students.

More than a third of managers think their youngest hires act less professionally than their predecessors, said a national survey by the Center for Professional Excellence at York College in Pennsylvania. (The college has a workshop called "Mastering the Art of Small Talk.")

"A good résumé and a degree only gets you to the table," said Matthew Randall, the center's executive director. "Professional behaviors are what get you a job."

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