Students Missing Out On Valuable ‘Soft Skills’

The Value Of ‘Soft Skills’

The resent announcement of a campaign by employers to back the development of ‘soft skills’ in young people, and increase the awareness of the value that abilities such as time management, communication, resilience, creativity, initiative, teamwork and inter-personal skills have on the UK economy. The campaign ‘Backing Soft Skills’ (2015) is headed by McDonalds in partnership with organisations such as CBI, Gelder Group, The Work Foundation, and City and Guilds, and aims to challenge the idea that such skills are a vague concept with little real impact in the workplace. Research commissioned by the campaign noted that soft skills are worth £88bn to the UK economy through increased productivity, gained business from new customers, and reduced operating costs, especially in work that involves direct interaction with customers and clients. Yet an increasing number of young people leave the education system with limited or no work experience and no awareness of fundamental skills needed in the modern, constantly changing workplace. The campaign argues that more consideration should be given to teaching students the necessary non-academic skills they will need, as without improvement in this area over half a million workers will be significantly held back in job opportunities by 2020. The campaign plans to launch a three-month consultation that will set recommendations for changing the current negative reputation that soft skills have, and hope to spread awareness of how vital these abilities are in creating high-performing and successful organisations, as well as the wider economy.

Despite the constant emphasis on academic qualifications, many employers stated that they valued practical and personal skills in business more than exam results, and were concerned about a lack of soft skills in the future. The research suggested the issue stemmed from a historical uncertainty in defining or articulating these abilities when speaking to candidates or employers (Development Economics Ltd, 2015). Many UK employees do not feel confident describing skills such as communication or time management on their CV. Therefore a method of measuring and showcasing such abilities needs to be developed.

The Digital Revolution Killing Communication

A very obvious impact has come from the wave of new technology, in particular social media sites, that have led to more and more of the younger generation being glued to their mobiles and computers rather than developing oral communication skills. Regardless of how many GCSEs or A Levels an individual has, if they feel uncomfortable in face-to-face meetings with clients and customers then they are unlikely to progress. Yet modern business revolves around building relationships, and it is difficult to make the same connections through emails or instant messaging. Study after study has shown the huge contribution that non-verbal communication makes in everyday conversations (Frankel et al, 2012; Knapp & Hall, 2007), and online or mobile messages do not compare at present.

Additionally, research suggests that those individuals who already have some underlying apprehension regarding communication are more likely to seek out online (or ‘virtual’) contact instead of gaining confidence through repeated practice in face-to-face situations. Online communication is viewed as a safe alternative where shy individuals can express themselves without the need to venture into difficult ‘real life’ communication (Hammick & Moon, 2013). Yet this safe alternative is allowing those individuals who would benefit from practice the most to instead avoid face-to-face communication even more.

A Social and Creative Future

Some have pointed out that in the future computers are likely to take on more and more of the technical work and increasingly humans will be valued for their social and creative skills – the skills that a computer will struggle to replicate. In a report titled ‘Working Progress’ (2006) the think-tank Demos highlighted the shift from manufacturing to service-led jobs in Britain and the need for a changing skill set to keep up with this type of work. Human talent is now a key factor in determining the continued success of British business, and the Demos report highlighted that human resource directors now rate innovation and people skills as important graduate skills now and for the future, and the suggestion is that the modern workforce will be split between highly skilled individuals and charismatic, innovative ones.

As exam results have improved, people skills seem to have deteriorated. The objective should therefore be instilling these abilities into our young people before they leave the education system. But the difficulty lies in knowing how to teach them. Soft skills don’t lend themselves to direct instruction, but can be organically embedded into everyday interaction with students. There has been some research carried out on students in traditionally technical subjects such as maths, science and engineering. One study, discussed at the 2011 Global Engineering Education Conference, investigated the effects of altering coursework to involve more hands-on experience and projects based work (Gonzalez-Morales, de Antonio & Garcia, 2011). The fourth and fifth year computer engineering students were given better opportunities for professional development through the new approach, and were able to gain practical experience in supervision, project management, quality control and decision-making through real project work for clients. The study noted the increased motivation shown by the students, and the higher performance rates achieved as a result.

A similar initiative was set up by the University of Hull, which found that students experienced poor absorption rates from a traditional lecturing format. The paper documented an improvement in study skills through the combination of academic and commercial leanings into a modified teaching approach (Pulko & Parikh, 2003) rather than offering it as an extra class. It is clear there is more success when ‘soft skills’ are incorporated into existing classes, and students are allowed to practice these abilities in realistic project or group work. Youth unemployment and underemployment has been and remains a major social and economic issue for the UK, as is the growing gap in skills reported by employers, and if the teaching of soft skills can be implemented in a similar way across the nation then this would go a long way to minimising difficulties in future.

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