The new norm for companies and organizations looking for fresh hires is to look deeper than just the degrees the candidates possess. The increased specialization of roles within workplaces has created bottlenecks as to who can actually be hired. When a graduating class becomes employable but there are only a handful of jobs, it is up to the students to make sure they have done all they can to stand out. And, nowadays, many will compete for jobs with others that have been in the workplace for years building their soft skills. In fact, it has been this broadening of scope when it comes to qualifications that will leave some students out in the cold, if they do not prepare while they are still in undergrad.
The new signifiers that identify strong candidates are “soft skills.” They get their name from the vagueness or pliability of their application. They involve skills such as communication, leadership, time management, and a handful of others. Soft skills are in high demand, despite being rather difficult to quantify on paper. These are skills that employers are looking for in order to staff their companies with well-rounded employees. Such employees have proven to be imperative in the new global market. It is this key value of soft skills that must be recognized so that students may flourish in their careers post-college.
Why Students Should Develop Soft Skills
According to Pew Research, “machines are eating humans’ jobs talents”; even individuals who receive a four-year degree may find themselves without a job because it has been taken over by AI or an automated widget. This is where soft skills show their usefulness, since individuals who cultivate them will have an edge over their peers. Soft skills can also grant the ability to succeed in a position that may not exactly fit the individual’s degree. Building skills such as critical thinking, creativity, and ability to deal with ambiguity gives candidates the kind of flexibility that most companies are now expecting from their workers. Various industries have undergone extreme changes due to technological advances (increased automation and computers) alongside other world events, such as COVID-19.
The biggest obstacle to obtaining soft skills is that they cannot be directly taught from a textbook or a tutor—they must be picked up through praxis. This is not the university’s fault by any means, because how would one go about teaching (or grading) empathy, attitude, or leadership? These are all skills that a person usually learns on the job. You have to communicate well as a hostess, a front desk clerk, or an intern. You need to problem-solve in order to do any sort of office job. Being aware of such opportunities will help you cultivate them further. When soft skills are found to be lacking in possible job applicants, that in itself should be enough of an incentive to pursue them, but this is not reflected in current trends. It is up to students themselves to build such behaviors before they enter the workforce. The question is, how do students begin to build these skills?
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How Students Can Develop Soft Skills
Colleges and universities are most likely not emphasizing these skills because curriculum and other pedagogies do not traditionally have a place for them. It is the purpose of college to produce students who are “book smart,” but this can work against what companies are looking for in their employees. Businesses want students who can deal with the real world and make informed decisions based upon their experiences. The problem that arises is that only firsthand exposure to such situations can offer this, prior to their first jobs.
Aside from internships or other volunteer experiences, how are students supposed to gain this knowledge? Where does this leave students in terms of a concrete method to pick up these skills? And even if there are methods, how are students supposed to fit them into what they must do in order to achieve the highest marks in school?
One of the easiest ways to foster soft skills is for students to build upon the way they communicate and lead in their classes and in their sports and community activities. Sharpening students’ existing skills while also rounding out skills they need to gain will pay off for them in their careers and in life.
Offering students professional development and training, including technical and soft-skills training, provides them with options for development that may not be available to them in the classroom. Focused learning through a full credentialed pathway of courses or microlearning meets students where they are in their development and guides them through building a wide variety of helpful skills.
Technically, students could track down their own coaches, attend workshops, or practice on their own—but in reality, most wouldn’t know where to begin or couldn’t afford the cost. A simple and cost-effective way educational institutions could offer skill-building areas for their students is through career centers and resources provided campus-wide. Having a professional development and training platform that provides full credential-level training and/or microlearning courses offers students exactly what they need for current and future success.
Be a Generalist Instead of a Specialist
Another aspect of soft skills is that they increase the tools that are available to students that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Widening the skill set makes students more akin to generalists, rather than specialists. The entire academic life in undergrad is spent making students specialists in their field, which is what universities are geared to do. That is the entire point of a degree, is it not? Yet, being a generalist may be what will give those students an edge in an increasingly service-driven economy.
Why will generalists be more successful? David Epstein makes the case in his newest book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, which details why generalists will end up edging out specialists in the future. “It means that excellence and well-roundedness naturally go together,” as Jim Holt describes in his review of the book in The New York Times. Individuals are often found to be better for having a broad range of skills. Generalists come to learning on the fly and in less-than-ideal conditions.
Epstein goes on to say that finding the “match” of an individual to the skill that they enjoy and excel in is easier to find when adopting a more generalist position. This seems contradictory, and Holt picks up on that; Epstein’s stance would seem to work better with students who find the traditional classroom setting detrimental to their learning experience. While this is a valid question to Epstein’s thesis, for the student, the lesson of learning in “wicked” conditions brings soft skills to the forefront of importance.
Colleges and universities are not well equipped to help students learn soft skills, but there are clear avenues for them to work on cultivating these skills in other ways. It may be somewhat difficult to even identify how to apply soft skills, given their implicit nature. Yet the methods to foster them can be easily merged alongside or within various activities or experiences, as we have seen. It can even be as simple as students being open to new opportunities or pursuing a wide variety of experiences, as Epstein noted. Having such a diverse set of experiences will open new pathways of learning. If nothing else, taking up the practice of soft skills will help students become well-rounded graduates and strong additions to the workforce.
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