Teaching ‘Soft Skills’ Matters More than Ever

People skills are at a premium.
The ability to relate is a strong predictor of success.

Technology is increasingly enmeshed in our lives and work. Most schools are embracing this, guiding students to study paths and careers with digital aptitude firmly in mind.

That’s undeniably important, yet technology is arguably not the most crucial thing we can teach in schools today, nor even are the specialist subjects or technical skills that begin to funnel students towards their chosen vocation.

In my experience as a business leader across a number of workplaces, it’s ‘soft skills’ that are the greatest predictor of whether a new employee will ultimately flourish on the road to a rewarding career trajectory, or potentially stagnate in one spot. These soft skills include competent spoken and written communication, the ability to collaborate and think critically, planning and focus, and even social interaction.

A Soft Approach to Recruitment
In LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends report, 91 per cent of recruiters surveyed said soft skills were very important to the future of recruiting and HR, while 80 per cent said they are increasingly important to company success. Similarly, international job website Monster reported in its 2021 Global Hiring Outlook that employers prize skills such as dependability, teamwork, flexibility and problem-solving.

The past few years, in which our interactions with colleagues and classmates have predominantly been via video meetings, haven’t been ideal for continuing soft skill development. Efficient and time-effective, maybe; but diabolical in terms of practising relationship building. In many ways, the same can be said for school students.

The classroom and the schoolyard are where we traditionally begin to understand body language cues and nuances in tone, and work out how to be engaging and likeable. Or instead, we might learn how to hide behind a device and contribute as little as possible. No prizes for guessing who most potential employers would prefer to hire.

Time to Embrace the Face-to-Face
Now that most of us are transitioning back into the physical workplace or classroom, it’s more critical than ever to seek out unstructured conversations, regain our social confidence and remember how to contribute to a group discussion and read the room.

Granted, there’s only so much that schools and teachers can do to encourage kids and teens to be social. A lot of the building blocks for good social habits begin at home, with things like regular family dinners and rules around use of devices and computer games.

Even in an age when computers and smart devices can do it all for us, students still need ‘analogue’ learning; the written and verbal skills taught in schools for centuries still matter. My daughter has started working at a café, and needs to quickly jot down orders for someone else to read and fulfill. She needs to add up the orders. She needs confidence and conversational skills to engage with customers. For many reasons like this, schools must not neglect the basics. It’s essential for their future and are the building blocks for their careers.

Teach Students to Leave their Comfort Zone
Where schools can really shine is by pushing students out of their comfort zone. Challenging them to think analytically; to work collaboratively to solve problems; to plan and execute projects; to be flexible; to take the lead, but also to listen. That includes the ability to confidently speak in front of others, which I regard as an essential skill and one that really helps to stand out in the workplace and in almost any role.

Soft skills and digital learning aren’t mutually exclusive, though. School curriculums must create opportunities to enmesh them, allowing students to build confidence in places where the real world meets the virtual.

For Best Results, Add Together and Stir
Many schools are doing a terrific job of embracing technology and preparing students for a future in which industries from medicine and law to farming and mining will be digitally dominated. Yet even here, a few alarm bells are ringing. A colleague working with a prominent tertiary institution noted that many lecturers have very low technology literacy, which can be problematic if they are to educate students and set them up for the future workforce. It’s important to make sure that, while we focus on teaching analogue and soft skills, all students have access to the internet, technology and computers, so that they can fully embrace digital learning.

As we emerge from a socially isolating pandemic, it’s more important than ever that the way we teach both analogue and digital literacy is teamed with the soft skills that, in my experience, will form the critical building blocks to a successful future and career for many.

Alex West is the CEO of Swoop, an ASX-listed Australian fixed wireless infrastructure provider looking to shake up the telecommunications landscape.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels