Spangler cousins
FEARLESS: Jenna (left) competes in FFA events alongside her cousin Hannah, working with and learning from her all along the way.

Hard work and soft skills

Public speaking, livestock judging, creed speaking and more: How hard work in the barn develops soft skills for life.

We’ve had a “creed speaker” in our house this spring. That’s a phrase that wouldn’t have made a lot of sense to me a couple of years ago, but our oldest, Jenna, is knee-deep in FFA this year. Over the past few months, she has participated in section and district public speaking contests, reciting the FFA Creed. She’s also participated in livestock judging contests, and sat before a group of adults and interviewed for a chapter office. She practiced and trained, wrote and edited, was drilled and questioned.

What I’m saying is, it’s been a little stressful around here. But good.

Because while Jenna has been studying math, English, history, Spanish and more at school, she’s been spending a lot of evenings (and Saturdays) working on her soft skills: presenting in public, meeting people, taking constructive criticism, starting small talk to learn about someone.

Julie Terstriep works at Western Illinois University and is often called on to hold networking practice sessions for students. She says she can definitely tell the difference between the “average student” and those who were members of FFA and 4-H. They have “transferable skills” — those soft skills students need for their jobs.

“The FFA and 4-H students have it before they start college,” Terstriep says. “It’s no wonder they are in such demand for jobs.”

That’s in the same vein as what Kim Kidwell, dean of the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, talked about last month, saying it’s not enough to be smart. You need to be able to communicate and lead and build consensus.

I see it over and over in the kids who participate in FFA and 4-H, and in a lot of livestock associations. They’ve had to shake hands and make eye contact; they’ve had to meet new people and learn about them. Maybe because their parents forced them to, but whatever. They learned to do it. That’s what counts.

In the FFA Creed contest, the kids recite the creed, but they also answer questions about it, applying rote phrases to their life and experience. So when a judge asks Jenna to explain the joys and discomforts of agricultural life, she relates it to that time she helped pull a calf in the middle of the night and then stayed in the barn half the night to make sure he stayed warm. And when she’s done, she looks the judge in the eye and shakes their hand.

Soft skills, man. They’re the product of hard work.

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