By Alex Sarlin, Enterprise Learning Lead
In just the last five years, the number of U.S. undergraduate students majoring in statistics and computer science has doubled. The rapid growth of student interest in these fields sends a clear signal: Technical skills are now widely considered by students to be the most valuable for social mobility and employability.
But as more and more job functions are automated, old-school skills like teamwork, speaking and presenting, critical thinking, and writing will become increasingly valuable. A number of economists now predict that the best jobs of the future will draw on these basic business and communication skills in tandem with the emerging tech skills everyone’s scrambling to master. This dual need has profound implications for workforce development.
Why are diverse skills so critical? And how can employers and individuals prepare for this shift? The answers lie in recognizing that technical and “soft” skills are inextricably linked – and in measuring and developing both in parallel.
We Can’t Unlock the True Value of Tech Skills Without Social Skills
Employers need people who can master new technologies — especially as those technologies keep evolving — but to be effective, technically-savvy employees need to work together. Technical work rarely happens in a vacuum. Code must be reviewed and tested by others, project plans and timelines discussed, and new features and frameworks explained and pitched.
Formal engineering programs rarely address these skills, but it’s clear that employers value them. In a 2015 National Association of Colleges and Employers survey, employers ranked “ability to work in a team” as the second-most desirable attribute of new college graduates, ahead of problem-solving and analytical/quantitative skills and behind only leadership skills.
Social skills are in high demand in the workforce in general — not just in technical jobs or fields. According to a 2016 paper by David Deming, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, jobs with high social skill requirements grew by nearly 10 percentage points as a share of the U.S. labor force between 1980 and 2010. “In contrast,” Deming notes, “math-intensive but less social jobs (including many STEM occupations) shrank by about 3 percentage points over the same period. Employment and wage growth was particularly strong for jobs requiring high levels of both cognitive skill and social skill.”
Deming says that social skills are highly valued because computers haven’t mastered simulating social interaction. So individuals should remember to hone their social skills when they’re out collecting new technical competencies, and employers need to encourage them to do so. For individuals, that might mean volunteering to lead a team or joining a group project instead of doing solo work; for employers, it might mean providing training or mentorship in skills like leadership, negotiation, and communication.
We Need to Get More Specific About ‘Soft Skills’
Employers have long said they value “soft skills.” But soft skills are challenging for employers to define and measure, and even harder for potential employees to demonstrate on a resume or in a brief interview.
Jason Tyszko, who runs the Center for Education and Workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, says employers need to get more granular about the competencies required for specific roles — “soft skills” is too vague. Employers who target more specific skills can actually measure them in the hiring process, using tools like non-cognitive inventories, lists of behaviors, and simulations. Systematically evaluating soft skills, instead of assuming they’ll come through naturally in an interview, gives these employers a leg up in the search for well-rounded talent.
Individuals also need to learn to tell the story of their soft skills. Start by updating your resume to highlight your specific strengths, such as collaboration and written and oral communication – and remember that many resumes these days are scanned by computer systems, so precise language and keywords really matter. Also think about how you’ll call attention to your soft skills in an interview. For example, if you’re asked to talk about a successful project you worked on, take the opportunity to describe how you built relationships or worked in a team to achieve results.
Tech and Social Skills Require Constant Investment
Acquiring technical savvy and social aptitude isn’t a one-time finish line or a box to be checked off. Individuals and employers alike need to work on both sides of this coin continuously.
On the technical side, the most in-demand cognitive skills will continue to evolve quickly. In its 2016 The Future of Jobs report, the World Economic Forum predicted that more than a third of the core skill sets that will be most highly valued in 2020 are not yet considered crucial today.
Soft skills are also a moving target, and employers can and should help employees keep up. Economists Joseph Fuller and Matthew Sigelman write that although soft skills are prominent in job postings, “few employers do anything to help employees develop these skills.” Deming’s research also suggests that employers would be well-served to continue training employees on highly-prized soft skills. One example of a key competency in which employees need on-the-job training: management. The average employee starts getting leadership training is in their mid-40s, but the average new manager is in their early 30s.
Technical and social skills are equally important parts of the talent equation. As employers and individuals work to understand the “skills gap” and prepare for the changing world of work, they need to consider both.
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