‘Soft skills’ are essential: Why college may not have prepared you for success at work

It’s graduation season for students across the country, and whether they are leaving high school or college, it’s the culmination of a lot of educational “bets” on how to create a successful future, both in terms of income and personal happiness.

We are a pragmatic and practical people. For decades, Americans have focused on “relevance” in education: How do we connect learning and development as directly as possible to workforce and economic outcomes? What specialized skill will help me get from the classroom to the cubical or factory floor, where I can earn what I need to care for myself and my family?

Other important questions like, “How do I match my deepest interests to the job market?” and “Am I ready for the interpersonal challenges of life on-the-job?” tend to get left behind in the race for gainful employment, even though they have a big impact on career development and satisfaction.

Meanwhile, business leaders are asking a different set of questions. In survey after survey, employers say that the most valuable and hardest to find skills are unrelated to the technical skills of particular jobs.

What employers are seeking most, and not finding nearly as often as they’d like, are workers who have what are known as “noncognitive” or “soft” skills such as communication, critical thinking, team orientation, diligence, and integrity – in other words the kind of “human” skills that make people successful at working with other people.

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Even in highly specialized technical fields, soft-skills are critical to the career path. A survey the American Enterprise Institute conducted last year found that nearly half of workers in science, technology, engineering and math fields thought that good writing and communication skills were extremely important and around 70% said the same regarding critical thinking skills.

At the same time, less than 40% of these workers said that high level math, analytical or computer skills were extremely important.

The perceived value of these skills grew over time. Mid- and late-career STEM workers (ages 50 to 64) were more likely to say that communication skills are extremely important, and a majority of these workers said getting along with other people was extremely important. Even in science-oriented occupations, people skills are critical.

In survey after survey, employers say that the most valuable and hardest to find skills are unrelated to the technical skills of particular jobs. (Photo: Delcia Lopez/AP)

The diffuse nature of noncognitive skills is the biggest challenge in talking about and developing policy to support their development. These are behaviors that are not so much taught in a formal sense as caught as we go about our lives in settings like family, neighborhood and community.

Adam Smith, the father of market economics, talked about this learning process as “sympathy”: We are conditioned for social exchange from infancy by an intensive but unchoreographed dance of relationships with other people.

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This kind of human development is the indispensable “third leg” of workforce preparation – along with literacy/numeracy and technological fluency – that set people up for successful transitions from schooling to employment and fulfilling careers.

That we have difficulty defining and “teaching” these capacities heightens rather than diminishes their importance. As the saying goes, technical skills – the kind you learn in classrooms – get you hired but “soft” skills – the kind you learn (or don’t) in life – get you fired.

To help overcome this gap between our intuitive appreciation of the importance of noncognitive skills and our lack of capacity in making policy related to them, AEI has launched a project that seeks to reinvigorate the noncognitive policy discussion. Our initial foray is “Minding Our Workforce,” a volume of essays from leading researchers and practitioners in noncognitive skill development.

“Minding Our Workforce” is broken into three sections: How our preference for technical skill training affects life and work and theoretical reflections on their importance and how noncognitive skills evolve; a review of what the economic data tells us about wage returns to noncognitive skills and their role in workforce success; and the view from several innovative program models that address noncognitive deficits through on-the-job training models, reparative “coaching” of low-income and entry-level workers, and a study on how to integrate soft skill development with technical training.

In the next stage of this project, we will consider how to encourage greater attention to the noncognitive skill challenge at all levels – federal, state and local government as well as among employers and other private sector and nonprofit workforce organizations.

The engagement of these partners is critical to address the existing and future workforce challenges the nation faces as we seek to bridge the gap between labor market demand and worker skills.

‘Soft’ skills can be learned on the job

The good news on “soft” skills is that each of us is a student and it’s never too late to learn them.

The challenges we are experiencing today in developing this kind of human capital is a matter for attention and concern not resignation, or worse, disregard.

“Minding Our Workforce” points us toward what’s needed for a future in which more of us are better positioned to access the blessings and benefits of a dynamic and growing American economy.

Brent Orrell is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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