Servol's teachings on getting people to change

In this 2019 file photo, Abiah Smith from the Beetham Servol Life Centre shows some of her housekeeping towel animals during a Servol Career Fair on the Brain Lara Promenade, Port of Spain.
In this 2019 file photo, Abiah Smith from the Beetham Servol Life Centre shows some of her housekeeping towel animals during a Servol Career Fair on the Brain Lara Promenade, Port of Spain.

Two weeks ago, a young woman in accounts was dismissed for posting racially offensive comments online. The following week a young woman who served in a retail store as a customer service clerk was reprimanded and suspended without pay for two weeks for posting online an equally offensive racial comment. They were of different races, as were the managers that disciplined them, but the comments were equally offensive to the public they served and who became aware of what had been said. A couple of months before that, the owner of a large drug store faced a boycott by customers objecting to a racially offensive comment he had made.

This week the pharmacy was still open to business, and the staff were noticeably more helpful and friendly than they had been before the pandemic. The racial configuration of the staff at that pharmacy had not changed, but their behaviour had. So had the nature of the postings made by the store clerk who had been suspended.

TT does not have a race problem. We have a behaviour problem.

Tuesday this week was the 50th anniversary of Servol. Some 113,000 young people have been trained by that organisation which has ingrained into both students and staff the attitude of “respectful intervention”. It ought to be on every employment application form.

When the organisation began 50 years ago, it started with the legendary Fr Gerry Pantin asking the young men he met liming on the Hill, "What can I do for you?" They didn’t trust him, of course, because no one had ever done anything for them in Laventille. What they wanted were not jobs but sports equipment. So he helped them to get what they wanted. Not what he thought they should have, with the cultural arrogance of those well-meaning people who think they know better than poor people do what their needs are. Eventually those young men asked for nursery schools for the children they had fathered with real teachers and then, long after, they began to ask for jobs.

Jobs then, as now, were hard to get.

So Servol inveigled several businessmen to provide jobs for the boys on the block. It was a disaster. They had never been asked to get up early in the morning to arrive on time anywhere. The other boys on the block laughed at the few who got up and went to work for being suckers. So Servol started skills-training.

Up in Ovid Alley a workshop was built where skilled instructors taught young men carpentry, electrical wiring and plumbing for free. That was a disaster as well, as the tools disappeared, sold to pay for cinema tickets and cigarettes of one kind or another. “To besides,” as Sr Ruth Montrichard mentioned while reminiscing on Servol's beginnings, the boys demanded “backpay” for turning up in the morning where they could do nothing because tools to teach them were gone. People do not value what they get for nothing. Servol eventually realised that skills-training was not enough to make someone employable. So they began attitudinal training. And it worked.

Skills can be taught in schools but it never occurred to the people who draw up curricula, or apprenticeship classes, that employers do not hire just for skills, they hire for behaviour and the ability of people to work on teams.

A famous Industrial Court case approved the dismissal of a young woman, who got “A” ratings on her performance assessments but disrupted all six departments that the company she worked for shunted her to, because she could not get along with the supervisors she reported to. “People are no longer hired just for their academic achievements or their skill proficiency,” the court wisely said, "but their ability to get along with other people and to work in teams.”

Servol-trained workers became in great demand. They were skilled, yes, but they also had learned how to listen. They had imbibed the philosophy of respectful intervention from their instructors who treated them with respect, who asked gently if they needed assistance and found out what the problem seemed to be instead of shouting at them for being stupid when they made mistakes. Word went around and employers competed for Servol graduates, and skills-training expanded into childcare, into welding, into hospitality, into car mechanics, into nursing and catering and on and on it has gone.

No graduate, as far as I know, has ever been arrested for assault, for theft of a car he was repairing, violence against a child she was caring for in the early childhood and care programme. They just don’t.

No one boasts about this at Servol they just take it for granted. There has never been a question of race or ethnicity. That is taken for granted as well. There have been behaviour problems, of course. Problem boys from some of Trinidad’s most prestigious schools have been transformed when they have been sent for a semester to a Servol attitudinal programme (ADP). Plenty youngsters, maybe even most of them, enter the Servol ADP with a troubled past. They leave altered. You cannot change your beginnings but you can start a new future today.

One of the main points of focus in the Prime Minister’s projections for the future is development of young people. I really think that if every secondary school in TT offered an ADP he would get his wish. Nothing succeeds in business like success.


"Servol’s teachings on getting people to change"

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