Recent graduates may not be ready for the workforce for a reason increasingly common in the 21st century: soft skills, or the lack thereof. According to USA Today, businesses say potential employees “lack the proper business skills and other professional abilities that will help make them good employees.”
“Soft skills” may be a misnomer. The National Journal catalogs them as communications, critical thinking, problem solving and concise writing — and these as well as the other skills employers look for in potential employees are, in that sense, "hard as rock." Other experts emphasize how important self-regulation and grit is to success in education and life. The New York Times says, “tapping into a great deal of recent research, the most important things to develop in students are 'noncognitive skills,' which include resilience, integrity, resourcefulness, professionalism and ambition.”
Whatever they are, this is much more than a single set of skills that can be taught and mastered in a semester — and that may be part of the reason why they’re lacking. “Traditional high school or college settings don't focus on interpersonal skills,” the National Journal says, because “teaching to the test” doesn’t leave room for much else. Yale professor James Comer believes that “test driven, or force-fed, learning can not enrich and promote the traits necessary for life success.”
This may be changing, at least in some schools.
Research studies on blending life and academic lessons are yielding very promising results.
One landmark study found that upon implementing programs building social, emotional and character skills for one hour each week, Hawaiian elementary schools reported “fewer suspensions, lower absenteeism and better reading and math scores on standardized tests.” These outcomes make sense, reasons Oregon State University researcher Brian Flay, because “improved social and character skills leave more time for teachers to teach, and students to learn and be more motivated.”
Many parents hope to instill similar traits into the values of their children. Even when they are wildly successful, a majority of U.S. parents still favor including such instruction in the classroom. What’s more, students of traditionally underprivileged communities have less social support. Their opportunities to learn these skills are too often overtaken by incentives in all contexts of life to “develop habits that impede their ability to learn. Often they can’t even see what the point of learning is,” writes one expert in the New York Times. This hurts them through school and life and can lessen the quality of education for their peers.
And where schools fail, businesses can take a role to close the gap between, what one Associated Press report calls “skills that don't show up in a college transcript or a sit-down interview.” A bank reported on by USA Today identifies individuals with potential and offers them training that includes dining etiquette, writing skills and community involvement. The results are promising. The bank’s employee turnover rate is half that of its competitors. Still, Forbes finds that socioeconomically disadvantaged students are disproportionately left out.
“In order for students to succeed upon graduation, whether high school or college, they need to be ready for what opportunities they pursue in life.” Students want to succeed. And as Randi Weingarten, an education expert, concludes, “If we believe that public education is an anchor of democracy, a propeller of our economy and the vehicle through which we help all children achieve their dreams, then we have to make public education about three things: helping our students build trusting relationships — with both their peers and adults; equipping them with essential knowledge and the tools to critically think and problem solve; and perhaps most important, helping them develop persistence and grit.”
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