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People Like Me Don't Shake Hands Like You're Supposed To: Lessons From The Teenage Job Search

Rowan Moore Gerety
Octavia Yearwood role-plays job interviews with a group of students at Seagull Alternative High School in Fort Lauderdale.

Nadiam Nesbitt sat two young men across from one another, called them Interviewer and Interviewee, and posed a question: “You’re the manager at Starbucks. What kind of questions would you ask him?”


The Interviewer blushed, averted his eyes, pleaded, “I don’t know anything about Starbucks.”

“What skills would you look for?” Nesbitt prodded.


“If he knew how to make coffee?” the Interviewer asked tentatively.


The Interviewee had a bit more confidence. Asked ‘why do you want to work here?’, he had his answer ready: “Y’all are good at teamwork!”


Nesbitt is a facilitator with South Florida Cares, a mentoring organization working with students at Seagull Alternative School in Fort Lauderdale. Many are new mothers and fathers, or expecting soon: even in 10th and 11th grade, the pressures of adulthood are not far off. The role-playing is part of a push to get students ready for the workforce and also the product of an unusual partnership: The main people doling out jobs advice to students at Seagull are managers from Starbucks.

“I can tell you a million places to go send your resume, but I can’t get you the job,” said Nesbitt’s fellow facilitator Octavia Yearwood. “Now, not only do I know the guy that can hire you, but I can put you in front of him."


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In this case, it’s actually a team of people. After watching a Jay-Z paean to “Excellence” on a projector, the students hear from Starbucks Miami Beach store manager Anne Ondyak as she reviews interview Dos—arrive early, be slightly overdressed–and Don’ts. “Don’t be on your cell phone!” she said to a chorus of laughter. “Turn it off. Don’t leave it on vibrate. Don’t check it real quick.”


Afterwards, Nesbitt gave his group pointers on the basics, like a good, firm handshake. “Don’t even look for his hand. You know what I mean—just look at him straight,” Nesbitt told a quartet of lanky boys. “Like just extend your hand to his, look him right in the eye,and give him the handshake.”

“People like me don’t shake hands like you’re supposed to professionally,” one student said later, showing me how he and his friends shake hands instead.

I wouldn't even apply because I know I wouldn't get the job. When you think of Starbucks, you think of, not gonna lie, white people! -Mamie Davis


Nesbitt said many of the students he works with just haven’t had much exposure to the world of applications and resumes. Another student told him about a job interview he had that very morning. “He didn’t have a tie. Didn’t know how to tie a tie,” Nesbitt recounted. “Went to the job, he said, ‘Yeah,’ said ‘I went to the job interview, and everybody else had a tie on.’”


At the end of the workshop, students told familiar stories of filling out applications all over the place and getting no response. In the case of Starbucks, many students were like Nesbitt’sroleplaying interviewer —they thought the most important job skill for a potential hire would be knowing how to make coffee.


“I think there’s a gap between what people may perceive and what actually exists,” said Starbucks district manager Chris Musser, leading his workshop at Seagull. “We just want to help bridge that gap.”


When Starbucks first visited the school, 16-year-old Mamie Davis says it almost seemed like a joke. “I wouldn’t even apply for Starbucks because I know I wouldn’t get the job.

Cuz...when you think of Starbucks, you think of, white people—not gonna lie, white people—all cheery, happy for no reason, like they have no emotions!”


After a second workshop, Davis felt confident enough to apply-- and she ended up getting an interview. She didn’t have a resume, but Davis says she got dressed up, put on her “little white girl face" and went in. “The next day, I called her, and she’s like, ‘Come back, we want you to sign some papers and you can come in and get your schedule.’ I literally jumped up in the air, did flips and everything. I was so happy.”


“If this didn’t happen at the time that it happened,” observed Davis’ mentor OctaviaYearwood, “how much longer until she would have just given up?"


“One of our young men has not been able to be hired by Starbucks—as of yet—simply because he doesn’t have his birth certificate,” Yearwood said.


Yearwood grew up in foster care and worked her first job at McDonalds, and she said she identifies with the struggles of many of her students. “You can feel like a needle in a haystack sometimes,” she said.  “You’re in a school that’s not deemed the best, you’re looked at as a young person that’s not the best. The great thing about these things is it gives the opportunity for those young people that do need just that chance.”