The new economy of the 21st century demands more flexibility than ever before. Even in my own life, I see how things have changed; when I started working, email was revolutionary. Now we conduct business around the world, via text, email, video conferencing and other forms of technology. By some estimates, we will lose 5 million jobs by 2020 due to automation – but those jobs will be replaced by new roles that are either just beginning, or don’t even exist yet.
Regardless of what new jobs emerge, some skills will remain critical. I’ve talked a lot about the hard skills needed for today’s economy, especially software development, and how higher education can adapt to help students acquire those skills.
What I haven’t spent as much time discussing are the soft skills necessary for success in today’s world, and the role higher education can play in developing these skills.
What are soft skills?
I think it helps to start by defining what we’re talking about. In her book The Hard Truth About Soft Skills, Peggy Klaus says, “While hard skills refer to the technical ability and the factual knowledge needed to do the job, soft skills allow you to more effectively use your technical abilities and knowledge.”
The Value of Soft Skills
In our results-driven world, I think part of the emphasis on hard skills has been because they are measurable. You either know how to code in a language, or you don’t. You know how to balance the books, or you don’t. Soft skills are harder to measure and harder to prove the value of. And as we’ve discussed before, I always want to be able to prove the value of whatever we are teaching our students.
But in a world that is changing faster than we can imagine, certain skills span roles. There are the usual suspects, like communication, teamwork, and time management. All of these are critical to working well, and all of them relate to the fact that very few jobs are isolated. No matter what the role, we all work together. I have had some of my IT team members ask me why they need to be good communicators, and I point out to them that every time they make an update or a change to a system, they need to communicate that to end users, in a way that makes the end user feel enthusiastic about the change.
Additionally, one of the hallmarks of the new economy is that jobs that could be automated are automated. That means that the jobs of today, and tomorrow, will require a lot more independent thought and skill, because the jobs that don’t require that have been (or soon will be) turned over to machines. That’s where skills like problem solving and creativity come into play.
The Right Mindset
I’ve mentioned some of the typical soft skills above, and I do think those are important. I value them enough, in fact, that we enshrined them in our corporate culture.
But there are other skills that are not traditionally associated with work that I find even more essential: grit, resiliency, and a growth mindset. I’ll go into each of these in a minute, but what stands out to me is that all of these skills are related to having the right attitude to succeed. What is needed in an evolving world are people who aren’t afraid to take risks, to try something new, and to be willing to embrace failure. Only through this can growth happen. Frankly, this is one area where I think higher education could be doing better. Our students are so invested in getting it “right” that they aren’t willing to experiment and try new things. We need to help them understand that failure is a growth opportunity and something to be embraced, not avoided. We need to make higher education riskier, so students can cultivate courage before heading out into the workforce.
Angela Duckworth has done some fascinating research about grit. In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, she says that grit predicts success more reliably than talent or I.Q., and that anyone can learn to be gritty. According to Duckworth, grit is passion and perseverance toward a long-term goal. Essentially, she says, people who are gritty keep doing a thing until they have mastered it (and even then, they continue to practice). This is what I want in a team member – someone who isn’t satisfied with the status quo, but instead keeps working to get better and better. I want someone who doesn’t give up.
Along with grit, resiliency is another important trait I look for in team members. Resiliency is the ability to take a hit and keep on going. One of my favorite quotes is from Mike Tyson, who said “Everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the face.” I want people on my team who can have a plan even when they’re punched in the face (metaphorically speaking, of course).
Adverse things will happen, in life and in the workplace. Those who thrive will be those who acknowledge the challenge and then spend more time looking for solutions than complaining about the problem. That’s resiliency.
Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset really resonates with me, and I try to incorporate it into my daily life. It’s equally as important to me that the people I hire have this same mindset. A growth mindset means never saying something can’t be done. Instead, those with a growth mindset feel like they can learn and do anything, so long as they work hard. This relates back to my earlier point of making failure an option – those with a growth mindset don’t fear failure, but rather, use it as an opportunity to learn. Growth mindset is becoming an increasing emphasis in the K-12 space, but higher education still has not embraced it. There is room for young adults earning their college degree to embrace a growth mindset, which can help with stress and perfectionism and can improve the ability to learn.
What This Means for Higher Education
Higher education is at a crossroads right now. The value of a degree is being questioned and new models of education are being introduced. Soft skills are one area where higher education can stand apart from the crowd. Unlike programs such as bootcamps, which focus primarily on teaching specific hard skills in a short time frame, higher education has an opportunity to integrate soft skills training throughout the curriculum. From encouraging group work to understand team dynamics to insisting on clear, professional communication, soft skills can be reinforced daily.
At the same time, institutions can consider what soft skills are more relevant and applicable and create a culture that fosters these skills. If a college sees growth mindset as critical to success, then every part of the institution can lean into that concept and encourage it, from administration to faculty to tech support and more.
Higher education has an opportunity here to again establish its preeminence and worth to the community, in a way that new models of education can’t compete with. As with anything else, having a clear vision, a plan for execution and measures of success (whether it’s job placement rates, longevity in a job, or graduate satisfaction and happiness) will be vital moving forward.