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Speaker brings ‘Head, Heart and Funny Bone’ to upcoming conference

Date: Wednesday, April 6, 2022

After three years, nationally-recognized career expert and conference fan favorite Brooks Harper is returning to Iowa to share his latest thoughts on how schools and educators can help students prepare for the workforce.

Harper, a professional speaker and author of three books on college and career readiness, is headlining the upcoming Iowa’s Annual Work-based Learning Conference on April 14 in Altoona. His keynote presentation will connect the dots on how students can discover, develop and market their skills and abilities to future employers. Harper will also be featured in two breakout sessions on interviewing and networking during the conference, and all attendees will be gifted a copy of Harper’s book, “Why Should We Hire You?” to use with their students.

With 15 years as a former corporate leader, Harper brings valuable insight into employability skills and career exploration. He recently met with Iowa Department of Education staff to provide a sneak peek into his upcoming conference sessions and his philosophies on work-based learning.

You are headlining the upcoming Iowa’s Annual Work-based Learning Conference. What is your philosophy on work-based learning and why is it an important component for college and career readiness?
You have to match what students are learning in the classroom with real-world experiences. It’s the best way to learn, and they provide phenomenal opportunities for students to actually see what they’re learning and apply it to what they’re doing.

It’s also an opportunity to interview. Every single day of your life is an interview, not just when you’re searching for a job. You also interview for promotions, raises and other opportunities within a company. Work-based learning is a chance for students to build relationships with employers and look for long-term opportunities. On the other side, companies can use work-based learning to look for talent and establish those relationships. There are so many wonderful layers and benefits for work-based learning.

As Mark Twain once said, “Never let schooling interfere with your education.” Work-based learning is a way to get out of that paradigm. Take what you’re teaching in the classroom and get students out there to use it and expand their knowledge.

Your keynote session, Why We Should Hire Your Students, kicks off the conference and will provide tangible resources that educators can immediately apply in the classroom. In general, what are some key things that schools can offer or emphasize to their students today that will help with career preparation and make them more competitive in tomorrow’s job market?
The buzz words right now focus on soft skills, or behavioral competencies as human resources would describe them. These impact job performance and are the “Skills to Make Mills” as I like to say. These are very important to employers who are hiring, but industry has been seeing a lack of soft skills in candidates. Applicants may be academically-ready and have technical hard skills but are missing the other skills that are so important for a successful career.

I also think one of the best ways schools can support their students is by energizing teachers. In my sessions, I believe in reaching the head, heart and funny bone. Educators get weary, too. I don’t know anyone who goes into the education field just for the paycheck. They want to make a difference with students. We need to give them good information, expand and build their relationships, provide them with energy and encouragement and do it in a fun way. This conference provides that opportunity for me to give them a boost.

Turning passion into paychecks and learning into earning is one of your quoted goals. What does this entail and how does it assist students for the workforce?
It’s all about taking what you know and love and using it to get paid in your career. If you do something you love but don’t get paid, that’s a hobby. If you just get paid but don’t love what you do, that’s just a paycheck, which leads to burn out.

Turning your passion into paychecks means that sometimes you have to be willing to give up some things to get what you really want. I’ve always loved the quote, “You can have anything you want, but you can’t have everything you want.” You need to prioritize the things in your life and see how it relates to your career.

My job is to take what I know and find ways to get paid for it. You get paid for the value you bring over a certain period of time. So how do you increase your value? You do it through lifelong learning. You can do this through free resources on the internet, news, podcasts and so on. I’m always listening and reading.

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly changed the world, including the workplace landscape. What would you say to students, employees and businesses for navigating this new world?
There have definitely been changes. It’s an employee-driven job market right now, but the pendulum may swing back the other way at any time. If there is a recession, and you’ve switched jobs, you may be the first one to be let go. We’ll have to see what happens during the next 18 months.

For me, personally, I’ve had to adjust my speaking business. Before the pandemic, I never did presentations via Zoom. I prefer meeting in-person and being able to feed off of an audience’s energy. But during the pandemic, there was no other way to reach students except by Zoom. I had to think what was more important, and it was reaching students. Now, Zoom allows me to reach schools, especially smaller schools, that I may not have had the opportunity to speak with in prior years. It can save costs and provide efficiencies for those smaller schools.

Companies have most certainly had to adjust during this time, too. A similar situation was seen during the 2008 recession, where many layoffs occurred. People either remember going through that or other generations who are now in the workforce saw their parents go through it. As a result, we have a workforce that isn’t as loyal to one company anymore. Work-based learning can help re-create loyal employees. Bringing in students for internships, job shadows or apprenticeships can help establish those relationships again and create loyal employees with a company.

Big forces, like the pandemic or the 2008 recession, drives us to change and re-think how we do things. We can become complacent in the idea of this is how we’ve always done things. Change is not always a bad thing.

Along with your keynote session, you are also providing two breakout sessions titled Everyday is an Interview. Why are interview and networking skills an important part of work-based learning and how can educators best prepare students for future interviews?
The interview is, obviously, crucial to the relationship between a candidate and employer. Because we don’t formally interview every day, it is important to keep up those skills. If you are unable to interview well or tell your story, you may miss out on the opportunity, and the employer may miss out on a good employee because that part of the relationship did not get established.

Interviewing is an open book test, but you have to be able to tell your story. You can tell what kind of competency questions a company will ask in an interview. It’s not hard to figure out. For example, if a company is looking for someone who is organized, they will ask questions and scenarios for that, and you need to be able to relay a true story about a time that you displayed that skill set and how you succeeded.

Interviewing is not just the formal process either. I worked with a person who really wanted to work for a designer. Her resume was amazingly good. She had experience in textiles and studied in France, but she wasn’t able to get anywhere. I encouraged her to go to the nearest store and get the name of someone in the main office. She then contacted them and asked for a facility tour, which was her chance to network for a job. It wasn’t an official interview, but it gave her the opportunity to meet, network and be heard by the right people. She was eventually hired by the designer’s company.

Work-based learning is a beautiful avenue for students as well as companies. It is an opportunity for students to show their skills while employers find potential employees. Again, it’s the idea that every day is an interview.

The Iowa’s Annual Work-based Learning Conference is themed, “Learning Today, Leading Tomorrow,” and is committed to giving today’s students quality experiences for informed futures. Educators from across the state will be attending the conference to share best practices and learn how to enhance their work-based learning programs. Limited late registration for the conference will be available until capacity is reached.