More on the Soft Skill Deficiencies of College Graduates

By on November 22, 2013
Soft Skill Deficiencies of College Graduates

As a higher education executive who works closely with employers, I am predisposed to the notion that soft skills are a major concern. I was again reminded recently when published an article, The Real Reason New College Grads Can’t Get Hired, purporting that non-cognitive skills are the true culprit when it comes to the employability of new college graduates. The article cited many credible studies, including our own State of St. Louis Workforce report which found that more than 60% of employers say recent applicants lacked communication and interpersonal skills.

The article set off a chain reaction in the blogosphere and social media as the power of the internet was on full display generating:

  • 11,000 Facebook likes
  • 1,700 tweets
  • 650 LinkedIn shares
  • 139 Google+ posts
  • About two dozen spin-off articles
  • Several personal emails to me
  • Read about the social interaction on Storify: Workforce Solutions Group Goes Viral

As could be expected, public sentiment was mixed. Disparate views were shared from those who view the soft skills issue through differing generational, socioeconomic, cultural, political and educational lenses. Moreover, it is clear that the complexity of the soft skills debate is difficult to present in a news article format. As a so-called expert, quoted in the article, I thought I would attempt to share some additional insight.

What are soft skills?

The best definition of “soft skills” I have discovered comes from the United States Department of Labor’s Competency Model Clearinghouse, a research-based, web-enabled tool that depicts the foundational and technical knowledge, skills and abilities needed to be successful in the workplace. Competency models were created in targeted industries based on extensive feedback from employers and educators. At the base of the model are non-cognitive, personal effectiveness competencies, including interpersonal skills, integrity, professionalism, initiative, dependability and lifelong learning.

Generic Competency Model

Generic Competency Model

Source: United States Department of Labor, Competency Model Clearinghouse.

“Personal Effectiveness Competencies are personal attributes essential for all life roles. Often referred to as ‘soft skills,’ personal effectiveness competencies are generally learned in the home or community and reinforced and honed at school and in the workplace. They represent personal attributes that may present some challenges to teach or assess….”

The definition seems pretty straight forward, but it raises additional questions. Can soft skills be taught? If so, how? How should soft skills be assessed? What are the factors outside of the classroom that influence non-cognitive development? I will attempt to answer some of these questions through the lens of a workforce development executive with thirteen years of experience in working with employers, educators, policy makers and career seekers including emerging workers, transitional workers and incumbent workers.

Can soft skills be taught?

Sociologists and anthropologists embrace the concept of socialization as the lifelong process of acquiring the skills necessary to become functioning members of society. No matter the role one plays in society – volunteer, parent, worker, leader – non-cognitive competencies such as interpersonal skills, integrity and dependability are necessary for optimal performance. And since they are in fact, learned within social institutions like the family, school, the community and religion, there is no doubt that they can be taught.

But, by the time students show up at an institution of higher education, they have been socialized to a large extent. They come with habits, preferences and behaviors deeply rooted in their personal experiences. So, the likelihood that a college student will be able to demonstrate acceptable non-cognitive behaviors in class is more of a function of what they learned from their parents, K-12 education and other experiences. But, that does not absolve higher education from addressing soft skills, specifically by raising awareness, communicating and reinforcing behavioral expectations of the school and the workplace, thus increasing the likelihood that college graduates can enter employment with improved non-cognitive, or soft skills.

How should soft skills be taught?

No matter the class, every time one of our faculty requires students to work on group projects, engage in role playing, discuss case studies or engage in collegial debate, effective non-cognitive behaviors are being modeled. The more of these behaviors that are normalized in the classroom, the better the learning environment becomes for honing and reinforcing soft skills. And the longer the student persists in a quality academic program, the more opportunity there is for growth (i.e. two to four year programs as opposed to short term training). But, while mimicking workplace behaviors in the classroom is an important strategy, nothing is more powerful than the type of experiential learning where students are given well-structured opportunities for direct interaction with employers (internships, service learning projects, job shadowing, field visits).

One of the best studies on this matter comes from Chandigarh, India where researchers conducted a comprehensive research project based on surveys, interviews and observation of students, teachers, professionals and experts involved in developing soft skills amongst students. The research looked at both general education and professional education courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. When asked about the best learning methods for developing soft skills, participants cited many instructional methods, but in terms of ranking the learning methods for developing soft skills in students, the top five methods were experiential learning, role-playing and demonstration, team working methods, case studies and problem solving, and extra-curricular activities.

While the study recommends that several methods be used together to develop different non-cognitive behaviors, experiential learning was cited most frequently as an effective method. In addition, the researchers found that the suitability of a particular method varies depending on the student’s prior knowledge, skills, background and learning style.

Methods for Developing Soft Skills in Students

Developing Soft Skills in Students

Source: Wats, M., & Wats, R. (2009). Developing Soft Skills in Students. International Journal of Learning, 15(12), 1-10.

The Soft Skills Perception Gap and What We Can Do About It

While soft skills are difficult to grade and assess, it is critical that students be made aware of how their behavior matches the expectations of employers. Our own research, which includes surveys and focus groups with community college graduates as well as employers, suggests a significant perception gap in this area. For example, while over 90% of our graduating students feel prepared in soft skills to enter the workforce, nearly six in ten employers feel that job applicants are lacking in soft skills. Although there may be differences between the graduates and the individuals in the applicant pool, it is also likely that students are not fully aware of their own behavior or the expectations of employers. The article also cited a perception gap utilizing the Student Skill Index finding a 20 point gap between the assessment of skills of recent college graduates by hiring managers and skills these same graduates report having mastered.

Even though colleges may believe they are using effective approaches to develop and reinforce soft skills, if they are not consistently assessed and part of a feedback loop to the student and institution, the skills gap and the perception gap are likely to go unaddressed. A few institutions are innovating in this area. Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and Linn State Technical College have both developed Excel templates that allow faculty to assess workplace readiness behaviors such as teamwork, effort, time management, communication, attendance and professionalism. These types of assessments have the potential for increasing student awareness, improving the modeling of non-cognitive behavior in the classroom, and helping students meet employer expectations for improved soft skills.

Another tool currently being tested at my institution as part of the MoManufactuingWINs initiative is the ACT WorkKeys non-cognitive skills assessments. This is being used in conjunction with cognitive skill assessments to give students a complete perspective of their foundational skills, including challenges they might encounter in the workplace, as well as identifying areas in which they might explore developing their soft skills. We are assessing soft skill training curriculum to provide further development in this area.

Some Things Are Really Our of Our Control

The serenity prayer asks for divine help in accepting the things that are out of our control; courage to change the things within our control; and the wisdom to know the difference. Well, I am wise enough to know that while we are in control of curriculum, assessment and co-curricular activities that enhance the learning environment, there are many factors – out of our sphere of influence – acting to constrain our success in this work.

Earlier, I mentioned the various agents of socialization where students learn behavior. None are more important than the family. Good parenting is essential. For example, I recently told the St. Louis Beacon that:

“It’s very important for parents to recognize that and make sure their kids are getting requisite types of interactions that require them to communicate, have good interpersonal skills and understand group dynamics and teamwork. You can get that in athletics…, team-based projects and volunteer opportunities.”

Students also need ample opportunities to practice soft skills in legitimate employment. Unfortunately, the age segmentation of the workforce clearly shows that unemployment is highest among younger age cohorts due to the slack labor market and delayed retirements by baby boomers. Nationally, the unemployment rate among 16-19 year olds has hovered above 20 percent since the Great Recession and is currently (22.2 percent) three times the national unemployment rate (7.3 percent) for the population as a whole. The unemployment rate among 20-24 years olds is better at 12.5 percent, but is still five points above the national average. The problem of unemployment among youth is a global problem with many social, political and economic repercussions beyond the scope of this blog. But, rest assured, the psyche of young people around opportunity and hard work is being transformed before our very eyes.

Finally, there are fundamental differences in how various generations define soft skills. For example, my two intelligent sons, ages 15 and 11, have grown up in the digital age. While my wife and I are careful to ensure that our sons are well balanced with sports, volunteer and church activities, they have developed skills and preferences unlike any other generation in my lineage. They are really good at gaming, texting and writing interesting stories within 140 characters. They are also great collaborators, particularly if they can use technology as a medium to communicate. They err on the side of immediate gratification and are generally “cool” kids who prefer “cool” things. This has huge implications for their attitudes and expectations about the workplace. Goldbeck recruiting, inc. provides a profile of the dream job as described by a digital native:

A generation Y employee response to her dream work environment: “I think it would look a lot like Google. People coming in at 11:00, dressed in shorts and flip flops simultaneously holding onto a Starbuck’s latte and their dog’s leash. There’d be a company gym, shower, restaurant and bar.“

Workplace Characteristics Comparative Table

Source: Talent At Work: A Career and Recruiting Blog by Goldbeck recruiting, inc.

Soft Skills Require a Global Mindset and Local Action

While non-cognitive behavioral development is a complex phenomenon, the conversation around soft skills is often overgeneralized. Nevertheless, in the slack labor market we find ourselves in today, they will continue to be a popular topic as the key difference between a job and unemployment. When confronted with these issues, I generally attempt to provide a global perspective while acting locally using proven methodologies within my sphere of influence. So, the next time you read an article suggesting that college graduates do not have adequate soft skills, you will have a primer you can refer to others for additional perspective.

About Dr. Roderick Nunn

Rod was the Vice Chancellor for Economic Development and Workforce Solutions at St. Louis Community College through May 2016. He is a nationally recognized thought-leader and administrator with over ten years of experience leading employment and training programs at the highest levels of government and education.