Why are Soft Skills a Hard Sell?

January 6, 2020 Kelly Eaton

Why are Soft Skills a Hard Sell?

Soft skills are decidedly what guarantees students a place in the modern, adaptable workforce. Why aren’t students and universities placing more emphasis on learning and teaching them?

Universities increasingly prioritize graduating students with degrees in job-specific programs and STEM over the liberal arts-humanities and social sciences. This is due to the market demands of students (and their parents) who believe getting a job and establishing a career is the result of defined, hard skills. While many employers agree and hire for hard skills, the overwhelming reality — according to talent professionals surveyed by LinkedIn — is soft, or what more accurately should be referred to as essential, skills determine the likely success of a new employee. 

Recognizing that, why aren’t students and universities placing more emphasis on learning and teaching the soft/essential skills necessary for successful hires?

Part of the issue is that the classroom is an imperfect laboratory for such skills. Getting an ‘A’ in the traditional classroom setting signals a student’s success at following the syllabus, excelling in assignments, mastering the content and, hopefully, participating in an engaged classroom. The structure is usually clear, the work predictable and it often does not matter if the student interacts or communicates well with fellow students, only that they master the information. 

A college student can very successfully acquire all the hard skills they need to graduate while also being deficient in the soft skills necessary for success beyond the classroom. 

To say it a different way, classroom success is often an independent endeavor. A student comes into class, comprehends the discipline and how to perform the knowledge. Workplace success, however, is almost always an interdependent endeavor. An employee needs the ability to communicate well, think critically and work as a member of the team, among other vital skills. 

More than 40% of corporations and almost 50% of academic institutions said new recruits and hires lack the soft skills necessary to perform in a professional environment.

Workday/Bloomberg Next Study, 2018

Students routinely rate themselves as more proficient in some basic career readiness competencies than do employers. This is because when students get good marks in classes they truly believe it translates into being ready for the workplace. A nationwide study found that is not the case. A majority of respondents felt new recruits and hires are hard skill-prepared, but more than 40% of corporations and almost 50% of academic institutions said they lack the soft skills to perform in a professional environment. 

Being the smartest person in the room can make for a successful student, but if not combined with soft skills, it can make for a person that others do not want to collaborate with in the workplace and this can be a recipe for failure. Of new hires, 46% fail within the first 18 months due to soft skills, and 77% of employers believe that soft skills are as important as hard skills

The necessity of soft skills for students to successfully transition from college to career is only part of the story. The looming influence of automation and artificial intelligence magnifies the significance of soft skills. 

Predictable, routine tasks and jobs are the most likely candidates to be ceded to automation, but that is not the extent of its encroachment. Another 32% of jobs could face substantial change. Those changes are coming to professions like financial advisors, marketing managers, and even CEOs. Tasks in those professions will change, but what will not change for success in the 21st century workforce, according to experts surveyed by Pew, are the skills that are specific to human beings: critical thinking, creativity, adaptability, emotional intelligence. 

Hard skills are not going away. They remain important for getting the job done, though they are not timeless. Employers can always retrain, upskill or simply hire employees with the latest needed skill. On the other hand, teaching junior employees the requisite soft skills to succeed lies beyond an employer’s capacity, in part due to time. That means employees lacking these skills have trouble remaining employed. Simply put, soft skills are future-securing skills. 

Recognizing that, how does higher education ensure students develop all of the skills — hard and soft — needed to become successful professionals? 

There are higher education efforts already underway. Some colleges and universities are transitioning from an emphasis on the major toward helping students acquire the varied skills and experiences that employers desire. Doing so requires stepping out of the regimented curricula academia has long observed and into a looser process leveraging the knowledge students gain in the classroom. 

Barriers and challenges, however, remain. 

In higher education, traditional professors cannot fully provide soft skills by changing their teaching. They should, however, recognize the soft skill need and help facilitate student access to them. Also, schools must eliminate barriers such as permitting financial aid to travel when students choose experiential learning opportunities off campus. Schools should actually be ushering students off campus for these experiences. 

Those are big shoulds in the higher education world.

Students (and their parents) play a role in soft skill acquisition. When shopping for their perfect university they should ask what the school has in place to facilitate the development of soft skills, i.e., experiential learning opportunities. Such opportunities address the transfer of knowledge learned in the classroom to application in a career 

Those options include immersive internships where students are fully integrated into staff, study away that engages the destination and its culture instead of keeping the student in an institution-scheduled bubble, expansive seminars with multiple institutions participating, and service learning, or community engagement, that takes the student off campus and into the communities to serve. 

Soft skills should not be a hard sell. They are decidedly what guarantees students a place in the modern, adaptable workforce.

About the Author

Kelly Eaton

Kelly Eaton is Chief Academic Officer at The Washington Center. With a Ph.D. in Political Science and M.A. in International Affairs from The George Washington University, Eaton was a political science professor for 25 years before joining TWC. As a professor, she taught courses on China, Europe, international security, international law, comparative politics and political thought. As a university administrator, she worked in all areas of experiential learning, including international education, internships, service learning and undergraduate research.

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