Click photo to enlarge
Tables of local business representatives from Pittsburg fill the gym at Pittsburg High School during the school's mock job interviews with students in Pittsburg, Calif., on Wednesday, May 14, 2014. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

PITTSBURG -- As the economic recovery continues to limp along in some areas and competition in the job market remains fierce, teenagers looking ahead to entering the workforce need every leg-up they can get.

On Wednesday, the Pittsburg Chamber of Commerce gave them just that, holding its second annual interview project at Pittsburg High School, with dozens of volunteers to teach students how to impress potential employers in a formal interview setting.

After being coached on basic interview skills, such as offering a firm handshake, maintaining good eye contact and exorcising slang from their vocabulary, the teens sat down with local professionals for one-on-one mock job or college-entrance interviews.

At the end of the exercise, the volunteers evaluated them on several criteria, including preparation, self-expression, résumé and the overall impression they left; the interviewers also recapped the meetings, pointing out the kids' strong suits as well as areas for improvement.

Harry York, CEO of the Pittsburg chamber, said that contrary to the stereotype of the lazy teenager wearing baggy jeans and dyed orange hair, most of the students he has met through the project have defined goals for their future and are prepared to pursue them.

"The adults we have (volunteering), they love it because the kids are so good," York said.

While many students donned work-appropriate pencil skirts, slacks and ties for the event, some still showed up in shorts or loose-fitting T-shirts -- wardrobe choices that cost them points on their evaluations.

"It's about first impressions," said Carol Del Monte, manager of the Pittsburg branch of Bank of the West, which sponsored the event.

Del Monte, herself a Pittsburg High graduate, said she met with a student whom she would have hired straight away had he been applying for an actual position at the bank. He set himself apart, she said, by demonstrating determination to overcome difficult personal circumstances, as well as dedication to excel at sports. Wearing a tie helped as well, she said.

Devin Dobson, a cinematographer and owner of Pittsburg's Framed Famous Productions, said he tried to impart on the students the importance of networking to find jobs, as well as the rewards of perseverance.

"I tell them to find their passion and follow it," Dobson said.

Among the students who came with clear goals was 18-year-old Luis Gomez, a senior who wants to follow in his uncle's footsteps and become a camera operator. He has already researched courses offered by art schools and plans to enroll in an intensive training program this summer that he hopes will help him land a job in the field.

Before Wednesday's interviews, the students were shown how to flesh out their résumés, which can be sparse on paid jobs but often are bursting with extracurricular activities, volunteer work and character-building experiences, York said. The key is explaining how that background has prepared them for the professional world.

"They don't necessarily understand that what they're doing and accomplishing is already a statement about their character," said Tina Olson, the city's director of finance and administration.

For example, Olson pointed out that many of the teens she met Wednesday had grown up bilingual -- an ability that carries heavy weight with potential employers but one that many students shrugged off as ordinary.

"It's not insignificant," Olson said. "It's a very marketable skill their parents gave them."

Senior Rachel Sanders, who is enrolling at San Francisco State University in the fall to study anthropology, said she went into the day knowing that an interview "can break it or make it."

"At first, I was really nervous, but when I sat down and got focused, it started going really well," said Sanders, whose button-up shirt, black blazer and slacks earned her a top score for her professional appearance.

"I'm just so impressed with these kids," Olson said. "They have a plan for their life. We sometimes think 16-, 17-year-olds don't, but they do. They want to achieve their goals."