Hard Facts on Soft Skills: Employers Demand Them, Students Need Them
April 15, 2019Kevin Stotts
In today’s rapidly changing workplace, employers no longer look for the candidate who appears good on paper. With the growing role of automation and technology, employers want candidates who can problem-solve and adapt to new situations as they arise within their careers.
As employers require additional nonacademic skills from new graduates, K-12 and postsecondary institutions will need to manage a shift in emphasis from traditional lecture-based classrooms toward added opportunities for project-based learning and hands-on experiences.
Importance of soft skills
A Gallup poll on assessing soft skills in K12 institutions showed support for emphasizing these nonacademic skills – but not necessarily agreement on how to achieve that.
Teachers, parents, superintendents and principals expressed nearly identical levels of support. At least 82 percent in each group said assessing nonacademic skills – such as teamwork, critical thinking and creativity – is equally important as tracking academic skills. While these numbers indicate a readiness within K-12 institutions, hesitation remains about taking on an additional load of soft-skills training within the curriculum.
Many educators responding to the survey maintained these skills are beyond a school’s scope of responsibility and capacity. One principal commented: “We don’t have the time that we need to reach out to the kids that are struggling the most with nonacademic skills.”
Outside of the sphere of education, 8 out of 10 Americans support job or career skills classes – even if that means students might spend less time in traditionally academic classes.
Lack of streamlined assessments
One possible reason for the hesitation among K-12 educators is that the concept of “soft skills” means different things to different people.
Measuring nonacademic skills is more subjective and requires more time from the educator. Many tools have been developed for assessing soft skills, but each utilizes different definitions. They may also be based on different assumptions of which soft skills are the most important – or least important – in the workplace today.
Based on the lack of consistency, it is not hard to believe that only 16% of parents in the Gallup poll believe the assessments in schools do “very well” at measuring how successful their student will be in their careers. Just 19% said schools do “very well” at measuring whether their child has the skills to succeed in life outside of school and work.
The frustration in defining and assessing soft skills continues on the employer side. A LinkedIn poll of 2019 global talent trends showed that 91% of talent professionals agreed soft skills were the most important trend in the future of recruiting and HR. In the same poll, just 41% of respondents had a formal process of accessing soft skills – even though 57% reported struggling to access soft skills accurately.
The assessment process typically relies on social cues in interviewing, which can contain bias based on the interviewer’s own background or their emotions that day.
CTE as a possible solution
Career technical education (CTE) programs have seen extensive growth across the United States. CTE students are more likely to experience work-based learning, on-the-job experiences, internships, apprenticeships, and other contact with the world of work. Soft skills are infused in the curriculum, giving CTE students the upper hand when applying for jobs right out of high school (or during high school).
In Michigan, students who complete CTE programs are 3.1% more likely to graduate high school than students who did not enroll in CTE. Students who complete a CTE program and go on to complete a certificate or associate degree earn, on average, about $5,500 more per year than a non-CTE students who completed an associate degree or certificate.
CTE programs are not available to all students in all districts. That is why it is important to support efforts of partnering local CTE programs with comprehensive high schools. One such effort in West Michigan comes from the Talent Triangle Career Readiness Conference. This group has worked with Talent 2025 to engage employers in developing an employability skills framework around the 12 most highly sought-after soft skills in the market today. This subcommittee of the Career Readiness Conference is working to pilot this framework, with input from the business and education community, in schools starting next year.
Efforts like these can demonstrate how to make an instructional shift to ensure our students succeed as the innovators of the future.