Young Upstarts

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[Interview] Mark C. Perna, Founder And CEO Of TFS, Cleveland, Ohio

Mark C. Perna heads a strategic consulting firm dedicated to making a difference in education and workforce development. He is a dynamic and motivational speaker, and a recognized voice in student engagement and success.

His book, “Answering Why: Unleashing Passion, Purpose, and Performance in Younger Generations“, offers a new paradigm for parents, teachers and employers through re-envisioned education and workforce development. The book won Silver in the 2019 Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY) and Silver in the 2018 Nautilus Book Awards, recognizing books that “make a difference and inspire.”

Describe your professional background and how it led you to create TFS?

I’ve always loved people — engaging them, discovering what makes them tick, and finding common ground. When I graduated with a degree in communications from John Carroll University in 1984, I went to work in the printing business as a sales representative. It was a tough market and I soon learned that the successful salesperson is more than just an extrovert; he or she has to understand the psychology of sales, create a genuine connection with the prospect, and accept a non-sale without taking it personally. I adopted the SW4 philosophy that simply says, “some will, some won’t; so what — someone’s waiting.” This mantra is highly motivating in those moments when discouragement hits. Go out and make that pitch — and keep on making it, because sooner or later it will reach the right person.

TFS came into being when I was selling marketing services to local educational organizations and realized their desperate need for specialized marketing, communications, strategic planning, and professional development services. Since I founded TFS more than 20 years ago, it has grown from a small business to an internationally known organization that has helped thousands of administrators, teachers, and support staff in the education market. Our mission is to share and support every client’s passion for making a difference, and it’s thrilling to see our clients being empowered to do that every day in their communities.

How do you explain the paradox of our country’s labor shortage while millions of people are unemployed?

It’s a mismatch between what employers need and what the workforce has been equipped to deliver. We’re just not preparing the next generation with the skills they will actually need in our globalizing, automating world.

As a nation we’ve exalted the traditional college pathway as the only way to a successful life and career, to the detriment of other postsecondary educational options. This has caused a shortage of qualified workers in critical industries like aviation, healthcare, construction, advanced manufacturing, transportation and logistics, engineering, and others. Meanwhile, young people are going to college in droves because of this narrative they’ve been told, regardless of whether or not the university is the right choice for them.

College debt is rising faster than any other form of debt in the U.S., and a surprisingly high number of college students never finish their degree. So they’re left unskilled, un-degreed, and saddled with student loans they may never pay off. All this, while major industries are scrambling to find workers with the right skills, credentials, certifications, and licensures that would make them successful in that field.

Explain the work attitudes of the population you refer to as the “Why Generation.”

The Why Generation is the term I’ve created to refer to both the millennial and Z generations. They have distinct differences, but also much in common when it comes to their working lives and what they’re trying to achieve. The biggest defining trait is that they want to know the reason behind everything they’re asked to do. This often comes across to older generations as disrespect or even insubordination, but in most cases nothing could be further from the truth. Today’s younger workers ask why because they are invested. They are not arguing or challenging authority; they are trying to understand the big picture so they can see if there is a way to improve the process and final product.

They’ve grown up being told that they’re unique, special, and important, and so they believe they have something significant to bring to their place of work. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They want to be associated with an enterprise with a worthwhile purpose in the world that they can contribute to in a meaningful way.

How off-putting it is when, asked “why?” by a younger worker, older-gen managers come back with the classic all-American answer: “Because I said so.” This shuts down the young person’s motivation and creativity and communicates that he/she has nothing valuable or different to bring to the work at hand. It’s no wonder that so many younger-gen workers change jobs so frequently. They’re looking for a supportive, purpose-driven workplace that recognizes what they have to offer and allows opportunities for those contributions to take place.

Is there a disconnect between how we educate students and the skills that today’s employers are seeking?

Absolutely. I’ve mentioned the “college for all” narrative that has led countless young people away from viable and rewarding career fields that don’t require a college degree. America rates its educational system based on how many graduates a school can send off to college, so there’s additional pressure to keep this narrative alive.

In addition, we rely far too heavily on a lecture teaching format that leaves little room for hands-on learning and engagement. We do not adequately prepare young people in the K–12 system to make intelligent choices about their future careers and plan for the advanced training they will need. And we don’t do a good enough job teaching all three types of skills necessary for success today: academic, technical, and professional (soft) skills.

How can our society better equip the next generation of workers for the changing economy?

We can first open our own eyes to the many high-demand, high-paying careers that don’t require a college degree and then tell that story to the next generation. College can be a great option if your career requires it, but it’s not if you’re going just to go.

We can also focus more on the soft skills (or as I call them, professional skills) that never expire and cannot be replicated by artificial intelligence. Professional skills are the personal attributes to succeed in the workplace, such as work ethic, communication, ability to accept feedback, confidence, leadership, flexibility, integrity, work-life balance, punctuality, stress management, and many more. According to a 2016 Wall Street Journal survey of more than 900 executives, 89 percent stated they have a very difficult or somewhat difficult time finding hires with these skills and traits. By developing and enhancing professional skills, candidates can create a significant competitive advantage in our changing workplace.

What are some overlooked pathways for pursuing high-paying, in-demand careers?

Career exploration should start as young as middle school, encouraging young people to start thinking about what they love and what they’re good at. In high school, they should have the opportunity to experience a variety of interests through career-focused courses and programs. Some of these programs lead to industry certifications that can help young people earn a higher wage after graduation to fund their higher education.

Apprenticeships are coming back as a modern mentorship option in many fields. Stackable credentials and licensures vary by industry and can often be fast-tracked to get the young person working and earning in the field sooner.

It all starts with a realistic, big-picture view of all the options out there, and a willingness to embrace less traditional pathways to arrive at the desired destination.

Learn more at MarkCPerna.com.

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Young Upstarts is a business and technology blog that champions new ideas, innovation and entrepreneurship. It focuses on highlighting young people and small businesses, celebrating their vision and role in changing the world with their ideas, products and services.

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