Career Pathways Leadership Teaching and Learning

It’s All About the Soft Skills

January 10, 2019

Read an article today called, “Teens Rate Soft Skills More Vital Than Hard Skills.” The author, Dian Schaffhauser, opened by discussing how teens incorrectly rate the soft skills of self-confidence, communication, leadership and teamwork as more critical than hard skills:

Could we be over-promoting the importance of soft skills to young people at the expense of helping them understand the relevance of other, “harder” skills? According to a recent survey, just over half of teens (52 percent) said they believe have a good understanding of the skills they need to be successful after high school. Yet, what they ranked at the top of the list were all soft skills: self-confidence, communication, leadership and teamwork. The skills that ranked least important were computer expertise, writing, typing and math. 

By Dian Schaffhauser . 01/07/19

I find it interesting the author assumes the teens are wrong in weighing ‘soft’ skills over ‘hard’ skills.

Soft Skills Matter

One of the soft skills at the top of the teen list is communication. By its nature, communication requires solid understanding of rhetoric, language, etc. which is much more robust than the five paragraph essay we teach in schools. Likewise, without self-confidence, leadership, or teamwork, what use are your math skills unless someone hires you to sit in a closet and solve equations all day?

Quite honestly, I’m baffled that typing is called out as a hard skill at all, given the influx of touch screens, Siri/Alexa, and mobile devices which require dexterous thumbs over home key placement. Likewise, I’m sure many teens don’t see computer expertise as something “else” for them because technology is ubiquitous in their lives. And let’s be real, when they are in classrooms that relegate technology to internet searches, or a PowerPoint presentation, why would we expect them to see “computer expertise” as a needed hard skill?

LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner isn’t looking for computer expertise, but he is looking for digital fluency, which requires proficiency in designing presentations, manipulating spreadsheets and navigating social media. At a conference in April, he urged schools to focus on four core skills: critical reasoning, creative problem solving, collaboration and basic digital fluency (Article: “Forget coding. It’s the soft skills, stupid. And that’s what schools should be teaching.”)

Schaffhauser’s article goes on to share other data points from the survey about access to STEM learning, but it’s non-congruent with both the article title and its opening declaration so I’m not sure what purpose those data points provide. 64% of students said they didn’t believe they were involved in any STEM programs. So are we to be surprised when only 33% of students express interest in STEM fields? And honestly, how are they supposed to know what career options are out there, and what hard and soft skills are required, if less than half of the teens are getting any instruction in career path opportunities?

Seth Godin quote on soft skills being real skills.

The Real Skills

Is the author implying that hard skills are the path to STEM, and that teens valuing soft skills are going to prevent them from success in those fields? Seth Godin, American author and former dot com business executive would argue, against that. He believes that soft skills, which he’d rather call real skills, are what matters most. In fact, he calls them real because even if you’ve got the hard skills, “you’re no help to us without these human skills, the things that we can’t write down, or program a computer to do.” Seth knows that real skills can’t replace the hard skills, but what they do is amplify it, give it meaning and value, and add to the success of an organization.

In Gallup’s 21st Century Skills and the Workplace Survey (2013), a majority of respondents agreed that most of the skills they’ve used in their current job were developed outside of school. So maybe instead of dismissing these teens as being incorrect in their assumptions that soft skills matter more than hard skills, we should take some notes.

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  1. Thanks for sharing this. For me, most important is to teach HOW to think rather than WHAT to think. Thinking about thinking enables people to find the best solutions for themselves. Thanks and all the best

    1. I agree. How to think is, for me, part of the ‘soft’ skills. I read somewhere (can’t recall where now) that employers are more interested in finding problem seekers and explorers than problem solvers. I have a feeling it’s because the seekers know how to think about a situation. The solvers are quick to take what they know and apply it… even if it’s not a great fit.

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