According to LinkedIn’s 2018 “Workplace Learning Report,” soft skills are the No. 1 priority for talent development in 2018. Further, an August 2016 LinkedIn study found that hiring managers indicated their company’s productivity was limited due to a lack of candidates’ soft skills.
According to World Economic Forum 2016 research, there are 10 soft skills that employees should have by 2020: complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, judgment and decision-making, service orientation, negotiation and cognitive flexibility.
Bruce Tulgan, founder and CEO of Rainmaker Thinking Inc. and author of “Bridging the Soft Skills Gap: How to Teach the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent,” said employers hire individuals because of their hard technical skills and fire them for their weak soft skills. “The No. 1 problem with today’s young workforce is the soft skills gap,” Tulgan said. “It runs across the entire workforce — among workers with technical skills that are in great demand, every bit as much as workers without technical skills.”
He said soft skills are key to individuals’ success in the workplace and are a competitive differentiator in the marketplace. “They’re the source of a huge amount of power that is always right there hiding in plain sight — a tremendous reservoir of often untapped value — a secret weapon for any smart organization, team, leader or individual performer,” he said.
Tulgan said three categories of soft skills capture the behavior that managers want: professionalism, critical thinking and followership. Self-evaluation, personal responsibility, positive attitude, good work habits and people skills fall under professionalism. Proactive learning, problem-solving and decision-making are under critical thinking. Lastly, respect for context, citizenship, service and teamwork are under followership.
Teaching Soft Skills
Davenport University, a private nonprofit university in Michigan, has been teaching and measuring soft skills for the past five years in their general education curriculum and offers students certifications for certain soft skills. DU’s excellence system is a data-driven method which “integrates nine competency areas throughout the curriculum of each major,” according to a university statement.
The nine learning competencies are:
- Global and Intercultural Competence.
- Civic and Social Responsibility.
- Ethical Reasoning and Action.
- Critical and Creative Thinking.
- Analysis and Problem Solving.
- Leadership and Teamwork.
- Information and Technology Proficiency.
- Written Communication.
- Professional Communication.
DU’s Vice Provost Irene Bembenista said the university began working with various employers throughout Michigan, Indiana and Ohio in 2003 to design, develop and measure the nine competencies. The nine competency areas were solidified across disciplines and through guidance from the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Bembenista said the soft skills courses are introduced in the “foundations of excellence” classes. “The faculty work along with the discipline specific faculty to help them with the rubric – like developing assignments and teaching material – and how to add these competencies into their curriculum,” she said.
DU Director of Experiential Learning Wayne Sneath said standardized rubrics for all nine competencies were designed by faculty across the colleges of business, technology, health and arts and sciences. “Completed student assignments were then gathered from the courses and looked at collectively,” Sneath said. “Each individual program then examined performance in the excellence system areas and designed action plans to improve their curriculum based on the results, particularly in areas with lower assessment scores.”
The excellence system is measured in 119 courses and the rubrics are used to evaluate assignments, assign scores and produce data. “We developed proficiency scales for each of the rubrics that we designed,” Sneath said. “Most of them are now more consistent in scale and in terms of the number of outcomes. So, it’s DU’s own internal scale that we developed for each of the rubrics at the introduced, reinforced and mastered levels with different ranges of points.” Sneath said students need to achieve a mastery level score on the assessment to earn certification.
To earn a certification, an assignment is assessed by a four-member team with a consensus on scoring between at least two of the faculty. “We recognize certification by a letter from our provost and by an actual certificate which students can include in portfolios and feature on résumés in internship and employment searches,” Sneath said. He said several marketing students earned certification in multiple areas this year, but DU is still working on getting the message out.
When certification is an option, Sneath said it is included in every syllabus and discussed in every course. Students can opt-in to the process through a link to a form or contact Sneath directly. Sneath added that students are not required to opt in and their excellence system assessment score doesn’t have any impact on the student’s course grade. “We are working hard to make sure that students understand the value of soft-skill certification,” Sneath said.
Nick van Dam, chief learning officer for McKinsey & Co. and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and IE University in Spain, said young people entering the workforce need to be digitally savvy, but also have soft skills. “People in their early 20s need to have a strong proficiency in soft skills including collaboration in teams, writing, attention to detail, communication, problem-solving and critical thinking.”
He added that creativity and ideation are extremely important skills for the workforce. Van Dam said employers want an employee who has an entrepreneurial mindset; who take initiatives and brings innovative ideas to the table.
“Successful organizations drive on innovation and that only happens with a workforce who embraces this,” said van Dam. He said both employers and universities should invest in the development of soft skills, but more can be done at the university level. “Faculty play a significant role in introducing the body of knowledge for each soft skill, methods for problem-solving, and providing students with direct feedback and coaching on how they can enhance their skills.”