Topical Punch | A soft-skills education gap?

Tuesday mornings, we offer up Topical Punch, a post that examines emerging issues in leadership, nonprofits, and areas that reflect the Public Allies mission.  We invite you to share your comments and talkback!

We’re betting that an article in the Sunday New York Times headlined “Plan B: Skip College” got a lot of people talking around the brunch table.  When I read it, I could practically hear my parents gasping from 860 miles away — the idea seems radical to those of us who equate college with success, enlightenment, freedom, intellectual capacity, and terrific dating possibilities. If you were raised in a family like mine, the idea of skipping college was an admission that you had no interest in making anything worthwhile out of your life.

(There’s an inherent contradiction going on there because my forebears didn’t attend college and did quite well for themselves, but that’s another topic.)

The premise outlined in education writer Jacques Steinberg’s story is basically this:  When you add up the costs of a college degree and apply them to job-market realities, there are some valid return-on-investment questions. Take, for instance, this observation: “Among the top 10 growing job categories, two require college degrees: accounting (a bachelor’s) and postsecondary teachers (a doctorate). But this growth is expected to be dwarfed by the need for registered nurses, home health aides, customer service representatives and store clerks. None of those jobs require a bachelor’s degree.”

(“You mean comparative literature isn’t as lucrative as it once was?” quipped the Village Voice in a snarky retort to Steinberg’s story.)

But what caught our attention is a point made later in the article: Many skills employers say they need most aren’t what schools are teachig anyway. “Such skills are ranked among the most desired — even ahead of educational attainment — in many surveys of employers,” Steinberg wrote.

And what are those skills?

Problem solving, conflict resolution, active listening, the ability to work with others.

Sounds to us a lot like Public Allies’ Five Core Values — the skills we believe leaders need in order to make lasting change in their communities. (For the record, here’s a quick rundown of Public Allies’ Five Core Values: Collaboration, Continuous Learning , Diversity and Inclusion, A Focus on Assets, and Integrity.)

Another excerpt from Steinberg’s story:

“In one 2008 survey of more than 2,000 businesses in Washington State, employers said entry-level workers appeared to be most deficient in being able to ‘solve problems and make decisions,’ ‘resolve conflict and negotiate,’ ‘cooperate with others’ and ‘listen actively.’  Yet despite the need, vocational programs, which might teach such skills, have been one casualty in the push for national education standards, which has been focused on preparing students for college.”

Our CEO, Paul Schmitz, told us he heard the same thing last month when he attended Ashoka Future Forum. During a session called “Skills for the 21st Century,” a Manpower, Inc. representative shared pretty much the same observations about skills identified as highly valued by employers.  Here’s a press release quote from Bill Drayton, Ashoka CEO and founder:

“Society, employers, educators and parents need to recognize that our children’s successful personal and social development must start with a mastery of several complex skills – empathy, teamwork, leadership and change making.” 

These are things we at Public Allies like to hear, and not just because  it’s validating. We believe these qualities are central to our mission to advance new leadership to strengthen communities, nonprofits and civic participation. It also gives us a good feeling about the way Allies are positioned in Great Big Wide World. Maybe those of you who are in the job market should use the quotes here in your cover letters, and explain just how you used collaboration, continuous learning , diversity and inclusion, a focus on assets, and integrity  to coordinate volunteers, mentor kids, generate support for a rehab project, untangle a human knot, or any of the other amazing ways you cultivate yourself and your communities.

Topical Punch wonders …

Do you agree that skills involving communication, collaboration and listening are in short supply in the work force?

If you’re an Ally or Alumni, what has been your experience with these “soft skills?” Have you found that this skill set sets you apart? How have you been able to put those skills to work?

In your experience, are these skills given proper attention in the educational system?

What examples have you seen of an educational institution or other program bucking the (apparent) trend and incorporating these values effectively?

We’d love your thoughts and comments.

A related link …

Steinberg’s blog “The Choice,” Demystifying College Admissions and Aid”


One Response to “Topical Punch | A soft-skills education gap?”

  1. Christine Says:

    Do you agree that skills involving communication, collaboration and listening are in short supply in the work force?
    ~ Short Supply in General. I suppose, because these skills are not “measurable” , it is harder to encourge students/workers to perfect them.

    In your experience, are these skills given proper attention in the educational system?
    ~ Well, general education requirements in college expect students to take classes in the Liberal Arts, which encourage “soft skills”. More training is required. I don’t think you can read or study empathy, for example. As an undergraduate, I find myself striving to practice my “soft skills” beyond public speaking and philosophy classes.

    What examples have you seen of an educational institution or other program bucking the (apparent) trend and incorporating these values effectively?
    ~As for Schools, In Hartford new initiatives give schools themes like “global communication” and offer field trips to experience more of the world for inner city kids. I’ve heard of “Project H Design”, a non-profit on design to change and sustain the world ( “H” – Humanity, Habitats, Health and more ).

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