Changing Education: Why We Need More Focus On ‘Soft’ Skills

Colleges should do a better job of teaching such skills as creativity, communication and collaboration in every field.

by / October 23, 2016 0
Soft skills including collaboration should receive more of an emphasis in higher education, a university leader argues.

Liberal arts majors know the reaction well — there’s likely a slow nod when they tell someone what they’re studying, perhaps a stunted pause, and then the dreaded question: "But what are you going to do with that degree?" While huge value has been placed upon STEM subjects, the value of a liberal arts education seems to have deflated. In fact, enrollment in liberal arts programs is down nationally in the U.S.

While everyone’s been cheering for traditional STEM style subjects, however, there’s been a worrying trend: Many managers and executives find their employees' soft skills — such as creativity, communication, and collaboration — are not up to par. Moreover, these competencies aren’t traditionally gained through STEM education today. In terms of interpersonal skills, the training we’ve received so far is inadequate. So in what ways can educators work to change this?

An increasingly complex workplace

Organizations today face complicated circumstances — there’s a need to be sustainable; big data is on the rise; and there are privacy issues, political churn and economic volatility. But study after study has shown that CEOs and other executives don’t believe their employees hold the right core skills needed to handle these shifts.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report, for example, anticipates that by 2020, a wide range of technical jobs (like health-care practitioners) will require heightened interpersonal skills such as creativity and problem sensitivity to do their everyday work. However, 52 percent of occupations expected to hold these competencies don’t currently do so.

According to an American Management Association (AMA) survey, three in four managers and executives believe critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration skills will become more important in the future. But most respondents think their employees rate at or below average in these skills.

And finally, according to an IBM Global C-Suite Study, CEOs rate creativity as the most important leadership quality, beating out management discipline, rigor and even vision. While 79 percent of global CEOs expect greater complexities in the future, however, less than half think their organizations can handle them.

There’s a gaping hole between the skills employees hold and what organizations require for the future — it is evident that current educational programs are lacking when it comes to teaching certain skills, and proof the real world today requires more than just core academic competencies.
Governments in Asia have come to the conclusion that businesses and teams need employees that can actually communicate complicated facts and theories in a straightforward and easy-to-understand way. While they historically focused their education programs and economy on STEM development, they now realize the need to help students develop more liberal arts qualities.

Singapore, for example, has taken one of the first steps — National University of Singapore (NUS) and Yale have partnered to open a liberal arts college in the country to “redefine liberal arts and science education for a complex, interconnected world,” according to the NUS website.

Educators now have the opportunity to embed the development of “soft” skills at the heart of all programs — from accounting to English literature — to provide organizations with the kind of people who are equipped to successfully navigate a challenging workplace environment.

But how exactly can educators incorporate soft skills?

Educators should encourage students to participate in experiential exercises like simulations, group work or public speaking, and then during the debrief about the experience, help students become more aware of how they react in certain situations. That process builds interpersonal feedback skills, for both the giver and the receiver of feedback. It also makes sure that the next time a student faces a similar situation, they are likely to respond with greater self-awareness.

This process encourages students to build greater self-reflective capacity, which will ultimately help them to become more aware of how their interior state impacts the world around them. Developing awareness of emotional and mental processes, and greater resilience to stress, can be achieved through practicing mindfulness and meditation in the classroom, for example.

Combining these sorts of exercises with experiential learning challenges helps students to appreciate how the practices increase their effectiveness under pressure, motivating them to keep up the practice.

Our education system needs to strive to integrate soft skills into all subjects — especially STEM centered ones — in order to train students in the skill sets required by organizations now, and in the coming years. This way, students can truly unleash their full potentials to co-create life-affirming solutions for a massively challenging world.

Peter Merry Contributing Writer

Peter Merry is the chief innovation officer at Ubiquity University, a new accredited online university that combines learning with social innovation.