Communication, critical thinking, problem solving, concise writing. These are characteristics that employers say are most important in potential employees and also the most difficult to find across a cross-section of entry-level workers.
These skills are the most difficult to teach, particularly in less-than-stellar school environments. Employers say many high-level college graduates can't navigate basic office etiquette. Imagine how much harder it is for even the top graduates of lower-tier high schools. They struggle to find work, not because they can't do the basic job, but because they lack these "soft skills."
"I try to stay away from using that term, 'soft skills,' particularly in the context of military veterans," says Addie M. Rimmer, director of student learning at Workforce Opportunity Services, a nonprofit that trains disadvantaged high school graduates and lower-rank military veterans for information technology jobs. "I refer to interpersonal skills. …All of the things we think about where we're interacting with other people and we're expressing ourselves, trying to get people to understand us and how to understand other peoples' point of view."
Traditional high school or college settings don't focus on interpersonal skills, leaving poor or minority kids who grow up without other support systems at a considerable disadvantage. (Their better-off counterparts at least can pick up some tips from professional or educated family members.) High schools likely encourage teachers to focus on their kids' test-taking skills or basic academic factors, leaving the less tangible development opportunities by the wayside. Community college students are come and go, taking classes a la carte with few advisors to guide them through just the basic registration process.
WOS has developed a class specifically to address these issues for their IT trainees, all of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The students read articles in the New York Times and listen to conference talks on effective communication. They work on language, writing, grammar, and public speaking. They have weekly journal writing assignments on questions like "How have you handled conflict?" or "Describe your level of self-esteem."
"I usually ask for minimum of 10 sentences. Believe me, some of them would struggle with that. I recently upped it to 12," Rimmer says of her classes. "No one has necessarily emphasized how important it is to express your point of view and do it clearly and concisely. If I ask for a page, I don't want four pages."
Rimmer says many of her students are "terribly shy" because they know that their grammar or pronunciation is substandard for an office environment. For that reason, she never corrects them in public, but she says she will tell them privately if they are misusing a term in a journal entry or if their language is inappropriate.
The WOS class aims to expand the world for young adults who previously had been in a cloistered environment. Knowing about current events and why it matters to them gives them roots in a broader culture. Some of Rimmer's students tell her they have never read anything that wasn't assigned to them. Until they took her class, it had never occurred to them to think about questions like, "How will my company's quarterly earnings announcement impact my life?"
These students have the basic reading, writing, and 'rithmatic. They just haven't had anybody help them pull together the analytical skills that put the basics to use. That's sad, because communication and critical thinking abilities are actually the most important in a work environment.
For our insiders: What can traditional high schools and colleges do to build critical thinking and effective communication for students? Why is it so hard for these skills to be taught to everyone? What additional barriers do the disadvantaged kids face? What "bridges" are available outside of high school and college to help young people obtain these skills? Should employers put more effort into isolating and communicating the "soft skills" they are looking for, so that local educators can address them?
(Note: This blog is a moderated discussion on education issues. Comments are approved on a case-by-case basis. Contact me if you want to become a regular commenter.)