Shifting to a Hard Focus on Soft Skills

"There's not one specific thing or skill people have to have to work for us. But I can tell you why we fire people: soft skills. We hire for hard skills. We fire for soft skills. The ability to interact and communicate with others or behave ethically and take responsibility for things tends to be where people tend to break down." Rick Stephens, Senior Vice President of HR, The Boeing Corporation.

Traditional academia has highlighted the importance of performance, particularly in standardized testing that concentrates on cognitive abilities. While it is necessary to be able to perform the functional duties necessary for certain jobs, recent trends have shown that one of the largest complaints by employers about recently graduated hires is a lack of soft skills. According to Rao (2012), soft skills are "the polite and pleasing presentation of hard skills. These are essential at every level of organization for smooth and successful functioning." Compared to hard skills, soft skills are much more difficult to measure and require much more practice and processing for proper application in real-life situations. While education has largely been focused on the development of hard skills, recent trends in the workforce require a shift in how students are taught in the classroom.

As a professor, the role you play in helping shape a student's future is heavily reliant on how well soft skill development is articulated in the classroom. In a recent article from The Wall Street Journal that addresses the current scarcity of soft skill abilities in this generation of workers, the article posits "workers with strong non-cognitive skills and cognitive skills earn more money than workers with just one or the other, a relationship that has grown stronger in recent decades. And workers with strong soft skills - measured by some studies as their participation in extracurricular activities - who were born in the early 1980s are now more likely to be employed full-time than similar workers born in the late 1950s and early 1960s." In other words, there is a strong correlation between wages earned and an intent focus on the development of soft skills. In fact, these skills can be the most reliable predictor of success in the workplace, as 85% of job success comes from having well-developed soft and people skills (National Soft Skills Association, 2015). 

The most traditionally cited soft skills for favorable workplace outcomes are:

Communication: The benefit of fluid written communication skills is nothing to blush at. Employers have frequently cited issues of appropriate grammar and spelling, as well as inability to properly formulate reports. However, the manner of communication, such as professionalism and a general friendliness, are also important in the workplace.

Initiative: As Victor Hugo once said, "Initiative is doing the right thing without being told." The pace of the workplace is prohibitive of constant oversight. Initiative necessities a sensitivity to the workplace; graduates should develop a keenness to predicting the future needs of their employers. 

Professionalism: Etiquette should extent across all aspects of a work environment: dress, reliability, correspondence, poise, and organization.

Emotional Intelligence: This comprises of self-awareness, management of emotions, and self-motivation, all of which require the ability to intrinsically monitor, recognize, and manage oneself in the face of difficulty (Myers & Tucker, 2005). 

The personal nature of soft skills makes them much harder to evaluate. Then how can professor ensure their students are prepared for the demands of the workplace? First and foremost, the focus on achievement testing should shift towards, or at least incorporate more, soft skill testing. According to Heckman (2012), "Achievement tests miss, or more accurately, do not adequately capture, soft skills - personality traits, goals, motivations, and preferences" (451). Necessarily, the need to hone soft skills should be regarded in the development of course and lecture materials. Halsey's (2011) 70/30 Learning Principle emphasizes active student engagement, where learners perform 70% of the talking and 30% of the listening. Conversely, teachers devote 70% of preparation to designing learning (the how) and 30% to content (the what)" (cited in Blaszczynski, 2012). This shift of lecture environment focuses on participation in which the professor is able to adequately monitor learning and provide quick feedback to student's work; consequently, student response may be more adequately geared towards honing soft skills, such as proper communication and professionalism. Additionally, Fuglei (2016) posits that students be given the opportunity to do "Twenty-Percent Time or Genius Hour projects," where students are in charge of setting their own agendas and goals for the entirety of the semester and are responsible for their project from design to completion. Beyond the personal learning responsibility of the student, these models provide an atmosphere for you to implement a rubric that focuses specifically on soft skills. Over the long term, students will have a better understanding of your expectations within group work and duplicate these efforts later on.

Of course, the easiest method to incorporate soft skills within the classroom is to insert them directly into curriculum requirements. Soft skills cannot necessarily be taught as separate course material, and require much practice and repetition. From the very beginning, professors should make clear that there are actual grade ramifications for neglecting certain soft skills, such as professionalism. As seen in APL's "Professors as a Model for Professionalism," Professors can model email etiquette, an important tenet of professionalism, by promptly responding to emails and following common conventions for email correspondence. For many students, college will be the first time truly using email in a professional setting, therefore professors should help model acceptable email dialogue. Clearly outline the proper method of communication and underline acceptable qualities of messages. Other expectations, such as class readiness, group participation, and showing up to class on time, should be clearly outlined at the beginning of the semester.

Due to the shifting demands for soft skills in the workplace, you as the professor are the forefront for teaching critically needed soft skills to students. Restructuring lecture time, student activities, course expectations, and modeling soft skills for students yields significant future benefits for students' roles in the workplace. Compared to hard skills, soft skills require much more reinforcement and active engagement. However, with punctual feedback, you will be able to guide students into developing these necessary skills.