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Would you hire a pencil-less kid?

I was at a workforce event the other day. I sat next to a woman who was responsible for hiring at a utility company. As this discussion was set up for employers to tell educators about the skills the “emerging workforce” will need for "jobs of the future," it’s kind of an invitation for business people to complain.

This HR representative took the bait. She was eager to recount a recent experience she had when a young guy called her about an internship. You see, her utility company regularly hires as interns students from the local career-technical school. I’m not sure if they’re high school or post-high school, but I’m imaging 17-, 18-, 19-year-olds.

She says, “I told him to take down this number and he said, ‘I don’t have a pencil.’ I mean, can you believe it? He didn’t have a pencil!” She was all indignant like.

I asked if that was a disqualifier, not having a pencil. Is having a pencil—or being prepared with a pencil—requisite to do the internship? Furthermore, isn’t an internship, by definition, an opportunity to learn? To be trained?

(OK, I didn’t say all that—nor as snarky as I’m being right now. I did ask about the pencil requirement, though.)

I have little patience for people “in power” who make decisions based on stupid reasoning. Further, I’ve had it up to here with employers who complain about the lack of “qualified” or “quality” workers yet who cling to 20th century practices to solve 21st century workforce problems.

Paraphrasing Daniel Pink, companies need employees way more than employees need companies. Employers will be well-served to temper their expectations: dial it back from demanding perfection to something more realistic. If they do just that one thing, I bet they'll find a whole lot more "qualified" or "quality" workers.

In the case of the kid calling about the internship, what does this HR person expect? Yeah, I have known some pretty exceptional 17-, 18-, 19-year-olds. They likely would’ve had access to a writing utensil or would’ve been quick-thinking enough to use the Notes feature on their phone. But those young people, as I stated, are exceptional. That means, above average. And everybody can’t be above average. Right?

The kid who called? Reminds me of a typical, every day, run-of-the mill teenager. And we all know what teenager are like. So, set your expectations to REASONABLE. And expect that most people you come across are going to be AVERAGE. Because that’s what that means.

Instead of judging this kid for what he did wrong, or what he could’ve done better, how about having a little empathy? I’m 52-years-old and I have my own business, and the thing I hate to do most in the world is make business development calls. But, it’s necessary, so I do it. And most people I call aren’t jerks. So it works out OK. I survive.

I can only imagine on that fateful day, this pencil-less kid—a teenager enrolled in a trades program—mustered up all his courage to call this lady to ask for an internship because, after all, you don’t get 100% of the internships you don’t apply for, and what’s the worst that can happen except that you don’t get it because you didn’t have a pencil.

Andrea J. Applegate is the founder and president of Applegate Talent Strategies, a boutique consulting firm dedicated to helping businesses get the most out of their workforce.

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