Ukiah Unified School District

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The Power of Partnership, Innovation and Learning

School Desk Blog: Soft Skills and the Future of Work

Blockbuster, MySpace, and Borders Books. 

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.

Public schooling in the U.S. and around the world developed at a time when we could be 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. Today, this model may not be enough. 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.

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 and 51% of teens would rather communicate digitally than in person (even with friends).

I experience this in my own life as well, even though I am far from the hip Millennial, sipping a pour-over coffee 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 smartphones 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 of 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 on 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 feeds 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 impact your message, how to ask clarifying questions and paraphrase to check for 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. We can help our students develop both hard-academic skills and the soft skills that will set them up for a successful future.