Soft-skills and the Future of Work

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Blockbuster, MySpace, Borders Books, Blackberry, Kodak. 

These are just a few, high profile names of companies whose failure to innovate and adapt to changing times or anticipate the future resulted in their demise.  In the case of each of these companies, there was a critical time when they could have embraced the innovations disrupting the market, or even purchased the disrupters for a fraction of what those companies are now worth.  Instead, these companies clung to their market strategy and operational models until they were no longer viable, and the company died.

Unfortunately, much of institutional education in the U.S. is following this same pathway, clinging to a structure developed during the Industrial Revolution. Schools during that time were fairly focused on reading, writing and arithmetic to prepare students for factory and clerical jobs. Soft skills such as empathy, problem solving, collaboration, and creativity were not necessarily seen as crucial.  Unfortunately, these soft skills may be the one thing our technology cannot deliver, the one skill that differentiates a human worker from an Artificial Intelligence solution. According to the World Economic Forum, the United States is in the back half of OECD nations when it comes to soft skill proficiency. And 44% of U.S. executives say lack of soft skills is the biggest gap in the U.S. workforce.

PayScale, a workforce data company, surveyed business managers to try to identify skills college graduates who are new entrants to the white collar workforce are missing today. They surveyed 63,924 managers and 14,167 recent graduates during the study conducted in 2016.

The study identified some deficiencies in “Hard skills” such as writing proficiency, public speaking, and data analysis, but when surveyed regarding “soft skills,” managers were even more united in their opinions. According to PayScale’s survey, 60% of managers claim the new graduates they see taking jobs within their organizations do not have the critical thinking and problem solving skills they feel are necessary for the job, and 36% reported lower-than-needed interpersonal and teamwork skills.  This comes at a time when the world of work is rapidly changing, commerce is more and more global and collaborative, and technology solutions are replacing humans for many routine activities.

Added to the problem of school systems entrenched in Industrial-age models of education are the challenges of societal change.  Belinda Parmar writes in Global Agenda:

“When our powers to engage with others could make the difference between ourselves and our automated counterparts, we are allowing our empathy muscles to atrophy. We are, to put it simply, disengaging.

Some 87% of millennials admitted to missing out on a conversation because they were distracted by their phone. Ironically, in a world that is increasingly connected, we as individuals, as families, as a society, are becoming less connected. A Gallup poll shows that families eat together less and less, while 51% of teens would rather communicate digitally than in person (even with friends). And 43% of 18-24 year-olds say that texting is just as meaningful as an actual conversation with someone over the phone.”

I experience this in my own life as well, even though I am far from the hip Millennial, sipping an IPA while I work remotely on my laptop.  Eight years ago if my wife and I found ourselves waiting in line at the grocery store we had a conversation.  Now we are more likely to both pull out our smart phones and check our email or social media in silence, somewhat oblivious to the people and things transpiring around us.  This is the new normal for our kids, so we shouldn’t be surprised when we find them lacking in the areas of empathy and real human interaction.

Education researcher Ellen Galinsky identified seven essential life skills that encompass most of the soft skills necessary for the future or work. They are:

  • Focus and self-control
  • Perspective taking
  • Communicating
  • Making connections
  • Critical thinking
  • Taking on challenges
  • Self-directed, engaged learning

If our schools are going to truly close the achievement gap and prepare our students for the future, we need to continue our efforts to increase literacy and mathematical reasoning, but we must also attend to these soft skills that are so crucial to success.  We can intentionally plan instructional activities that require students to focus for incrementally increasing amounts of time and exercise self-control in the area of digital connectivity.  We can help them seek out varied perspectives instead of blindly consuming the highly curated information that social media algorithms feed them based on their natural interests or bias.  We can develop projects that require students to collaborate and connect with a variety of people and communicate effectively in a variety of ways (face to face, digitally, graphically, etc).  These activities need to include instruction in communication skills such as giving and receiving constructive feedback, how body language and tone impacts your message, how to ask clarifying questions and paraphrase to check understanding, etc.  We also need to plan projects so that students feel safe taking on challenging work that pushes their limits without fear of failure.  Finally, as much as possible we need to tap into student interest and authentic projects, giving them the opportunity to be more self-directed and develop the mindset that learning is useful and interesting rather than just a hoop to jump through.

We have a choice to either continue on with the status quo, or make changes that better prepare our kids for the world of work they will soon enter.  Businesses can come and go, but we cannot afford to let education fail our kids.

Soft skills

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