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Professionalism 101: A Class On How To Get The Job

LA Johnson

You can take a college course on just about anything nowadays. There's a class on Kanye West lyrics. And one about the American vacation.

But some teachers think that crucial basic skills are being overlooked in the process. Things like showing up on time for class, meeting deadlines, dressing appropriately, working well in teams.

Some of those things might pop up indirectly in other courses — business or communications, for example. But a growing number of campuses are focusing specifically on "professionalism" — what it entails and how to achieve it.

At George Mason University in Washington, D.C., Dedra Faine teaches a six-week course called Professionalism and Civility. It's now mandatory for George Mason's hospitality students.

Among the subjects Faine covers are: dining etiquette, proper dress and behavior in the workplace, and how to answer a phone properly or handle difficult people.

"All of that plays a role in the morale of the company," she says.

Deborah Popp, a 24-year-old hospitality major, took Faine's course last year.

At first glance, she was skeptical: "I was initially taken aback that it was even acknowledged as something important or something to be aware of."

In her mind, "professionalism" simply meant turning things in on time, she says.

But after taking the class, "I've learned that there is a heart behind it," she says. "There is a deeper meaning, a different kind of care that you give and a different response to people that's more than getting a job done."

Faine, who's been teaching the course since 2013, says she's teaching material that a lot of 20-somethings seem to need.

York College in Pennsylvania does a survey of campus faculty and officials every few years that measures professionalism on campuses. The most recent one, in 2014, found that more than a third of professors and human-resources respondents thought professionalism among upperclassmen had decreased in the past five years.

That survey defined "professionalism" as showing up on time and prepared, being focused and working well with other students.

Teresa Ward, a professor at Butte College, a community college in northern California, decided to incorporate lessons about professionalism into her English and reading classes.

She uses a rubricthat students have to fill out and follow. They're asked to identify three to five behaviors that they feel embody professionalism and write them down — for example, speaking coherently or setting goals and practicing self-management.

Then, the students track their own behavior using the rubric, and see how well they did.

One big goal in all of this, of course, is helping students get jobs when they graduate.

Research shows employers are increasingly demanding these skills. According to the2015 Skills Gap survey, almost half of executives within the manufacturing industry thought their employees didn't have basic employability skills — things like punctuality, attitude and teamwork.

"I think everybody can learn these skills and be trainable and incorporate them into their routine and into their life so they are effective at them," says Gardner Carrick, vice president of strategic initiatives at The Manufacturing Institute, an industry advocacy group. "Understanding the priority that companies are putting on that skill set raises the importance of them and the requirement to have them."

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Jacquie Lee