Employers value soft skills over classroom knowledge in recent graduates

A degree is important to anyone seeking a career, but the degree alone is not enough.

Experts say soft skills – the sorts of things that are not normally learned in a classroom – matter. A lot.

“In this fluid and ever-changing world, I believe that employee values such as respect, kindness, integrity and honesty are what set people apart,” said Sheila Brillson Matias, executive director of the Leadership Institute at Purdue Northwest. “An employer can teach people ‘do stuff’ tasks, duties and functions, but it is another story trying to teach someone to be honorable or to be a team player. In this day of ever-changing workplace rules, authentic leadership based on values is critical to creating positive business culture.”

The problem is that PNW and America’s other 4,297 degree-granting institutions do not traditionally teach soft skills.

‘Soft skills’ is an umbrella term for a long list of attributes that relate to how well one works with others in a business environment. LinkedIn, the World Economic Forum, Google and Forbes list critical thinking, communication and listening, persuasion, collaboration and adaptability as some of 2020’s most critical soft skills. Creativity is generally recognized year after year as being one of the most important soft skills.

How important are these skills? A study conducted by Hart Research found 91% of employers agree that a job candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex programs is more important than his or her undergraduate major.

“If you examine studies that reflect what skills executives are looking for, you find that desired skills are shifting,” said Jason Williams, assistant director for the PNW Society of Innovators. “They fall into two camps: soft/innovation skills and technical skills.

“The technical skills are self-explanatory,” he said. “For soft skills, it is [those that are] innovation-related that are increasing in demand: Creativity, problem-solving, critical-thinking, curiosity, a learning/entrepreneurial mindset, empathy and flexibility. [These] are essential soft skills that aren’t necessarily taught.”

He agrees that creativity is one of the most essential skills. The word appears on almost half of the slides in a PowerPoint he uses in Society of Innovators presentations.

The problem is that soft skills generally are not taught at school. But Williams insists they can be learned.

“Everyone is creative, some just do not feel empowered,” he said. “I have a colleague who bought a Lazy Boy [recliner] and does not want to get up to change the channel on his TV. He took a stick, put a little [novelty rubber finger] on the end, and uses it to change the channels. That is creativity!”

“People do creative things all the time,” he said. “Once you realize it, you feel empowered and the juices start flowing.”

But some academics worry that younger generations lack the creativity and innovation skills of their predecessors. One decade-old study found a decline in creativity among kindergartners over a 20-year period – even though measured intelligence had risen in the test groups.

Williams thinks the potential for innovation and creativity is constant through generations.

“I don’t think there is inherently any less creativity from generation to generation, it just takes different forms,” he said. “A funny TikTok or a compelling Instagram story is creativity in action too.”

Williams said the growing concerns about a lack of creativity, innovation and interpersonal skills in younger generations may be linked to their increased consumption of technology.

“I think there are real concerns for all generations on how much our devices and apps are consuming us,” he said. “Losing the ability to be bored and let our minds wander can definitely be a hurdle to creativity.”

The problem is that – in a job market where opportunities are pretty slim – employers are complaining that they cannot find the skills they need among new graduates.

Several studies and surveys of employers have found during the past decade that they are not satisfied with the skills they see in new graduates. One particularly damning study, a 2013 Gallup poll, found only 11% of employers strongly agree that universities are preparing their students for the workplace.

So, aside from earning a degree, what can PNW students do to secure their dream job? According to Williams, do more.

“A wide range of experiences helps strengthen these skills,” he said. “There is no certificate that shows if you are creative and curious. Employers know that.”

Williams believes most students already have soft skills, but that they need to hone them and demonstrate success in using them. That, he said, means getting involved outside the classroom.

“Be adaptable and comfortable with change,” he said. “Get involved. Where are you volunteering your time? Involved in different clubs, activities, extracurriculars? Have stories to back up your skills.”

Psychology major Antonio Kocoski feels very competent with his set of soft skills. He said being involved in extracurricular activities has helped him improve his ability to communicate professionally, speak clearly and effectively, manage his time and be confident enough to ask for help.

Kocoski works a font desk for CHESS, as a CES advisor and as a research assistant in the psychology department. His current research focuses on stress physiology in orangutans and the observation of foster mother-offspring interactions.  

“My soft skill development 100% comes from the extra things I do at the university,” said Kocoski. “Working the front desk helped with my interpersonal skills and just interacting with other people. I pick up a lot from the research team I work with. We need to manage our time well. We email professionally and try to communicate effectively… Extracurriculars have contributed a lot to my development.”

Communication student Mike Krga attributes his soft skill development entirely to the courses his public relations specialization offers.

“I was a bio and IT major before, and we were just assigned work and had to get it done. It was pretty straightforward,” said Krga. “The PR department helped focus in on those [soft] skills. So much of our classes revolve around group projects and speaking and interacting.

“Problems in PR [an experiential learning course where students create and manage a consulting firm] I think helped test out some of my softer skills,” he said. “I had a lot of empathy for my classmates, which was good. But towards the end I realized I needed to be blunter. I was a little bit of a pushover at the beginning. At the end I was assertive with people.”

Arfin Angriawan, interim chairman of the Department of Managerial Studies, said it is important for students to broaden their experience, exposure and skillset, even if it requires them to attend multiple colleges.

“Due to the increasingly competitive job markets, students might want to slightly customize their education and develop competitive advantages over their peers,” he said. “They might want to take more courses outside of their colleges or majors to enhance their technical, cognitive and social skills.

“The university and colleges can facilitate or even formalize it by creating inter-college degrees that offer majors that develop these skills,” he said.

Senior communications major Raquel McCafferty has recently started building out her professional identity in search for work and internships.

She displays time management, public speaking, conflict resolution, customer service and positivity under the soft skills & endorsements section on her LinkedIn profile. She has a story to back up every one of them.

“Most of these skills came from being pushed out of my comfort zone,” she said. “Working and my speech classes put me out of my comfort zone.”

McCafferty attributes her soft skill development to part-time jobs and a few of her communications courses. She has been working since she was 16, when she was technically underage and had to be paid under the table. Her favorite position was at YoAmazing because of the customer interaction and free frozen yogurt.

“These skills are going to help me in my professional life but are also important for everyday interaction,” she said. “You cannot teach things like empathy. That just comes from being a good person and to be a good person, you need to see bad people. A lot of customers are bad people.”