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Supporting Soft and Technical Skill Development: The Role of Postsecondary Institutions in Delivering Balanced Ongoing Education

The EvoLLLution | Supporting Soft and Technical Skill Development: The Role of Postsecondary Institutions in Delivering Balanced Ongoing Education
Supporting the development and growth of an industry in the 21st century requires college and university leaders to think about their students in terms of T-shaped professionals, who have a broad range of soft skills and deep technical knowledge.

There are higher expectations on employees in today’s labor market than ever before. Employers expect their employees to engage in continuous, lifelong learning simply to remain on top of the constant changes happening in their industries. Additionally, employees in today’s labor market need more than technical skills—they need to be able to communicate, lead, support and engage in new ways, and these soft skills are considered as important as technical capacity. In this interview, PK Agarwal discusses how the changing IT space is increasing the demand for soft skills in Silicon Valley and reflects on the role colleges and universities play in developing the much-desired T-shaped Professional.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why are soft skills so important to career success in the computer science industry?

PK Agarwal (PKA): Over the past 50 years, the magnitude and socioeconomic impact of technology is growing. In the 60s and 70s, tech was basically a back-office automation where it took on tasks like accounting and was really just an efficiency play. Eventually, technology started to move into a much more outward-facing role and companies would ask, “How can we use tech to sell you more?” Now we’re getting to the point where technology is so far reaching. When you think of things like IoT, machine learning, artificial intelligence and Big Data, these are fundamentally highly disruptive and transformative to our daily lives.

To be able to effectively implement these things you don’t need somebody who is necessarily good with tech and able to make clever programs and do algorithms—although you do absolutely need people like that as well. More and more people from the technology sector—especially the ones who are outward-facing—understand that more than anything else they’re change managers.

I like where they say the success of the future lies with T-shaped individuals, where you know a lot about a lot of things, you’re good at a lot of different things but you do have your deep specialization. That’s what I see happening here—to be able to effectively manage the disruption and the transformation that’s happening because of technology, you need a lot more soft skills.

Evo: What responsibility do postsecondary institutions have in supporting the development of soft skills—in addition to more technical skills—in graduates?

PKA: In developing these T-shaped individuals at Northeastern, everything we do is experiential. Whether it’s co-op programs or some other opportunity, we place about 10,000 students across the globe and we allow them to experiment with whatever they want—we have some boundaries—that excites them. That’s the broad part.

We believe that professional success results from three pieces. One is our bread and butter and our hallmark: highly experiential education. The second part is soft skills, and a third is the network.

Evo: How does the focus on broader skill development help set colleges and universities apart from bootcamps and other non-institutional skills training providers?

PKA: I think there are two models: the university level of looking at developing the whole individual over the long term and these bootcamps looking at a short-term horizon and helping to re-skill or up-skill students to prepare them for high-demand occupations.

At Northeastern, we are playing both fields. We’re offering bootcamps in addition to our more traditional programs. We’re developing the individual for a longer period of time and then also trying to see if we can help meet the short-term demands.

Evo: Do you see bootcamps as a piece of what postsecondary institutions can do to serve a broader audience or are they cannibalizing the market that would otherwise would go into a credential-granting program?

PKA: It’s a little bit of both. Every time a new innovative model comes along, supply clears demand, so it’s not a zero-sum game. One thing these bootcamps have done is displaced certificates to an extent. Certificates were intended to do the same thing as bootcamps—to provide credentials in a relatively short time without worrying about having a degree. Bootcamps are saying we’ll make it more concentrated, much more effective, with very short horizons so naturally that’s where it feels like cannibalization. But also you have to realize that universities have a different model. In our case when we offer these bootcamps and similar professional studies we’re saying look, these things also stack into our degree programs. We’re providing a little bit more of a progression. If you look around Silicon Valley a lot of companies are saying they really don’t care whether it’s credit-bearing or not. Even professionals are saying the same thing.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about how the world of IT work is starting to evolve and the role you hope to see Northeastern Silicon Valley play in helping the space evolve?

PKA: There are two sides to Northeastern Silicon Valley—one is that we’re just happy to be here, and when I talk to industry partners I say look, we’re just here to contribute to the vitality of the industry by creating the workforce of the future. That’s fundamentally our mission. And then we talk to the potential students and we say look, think of your future as a three-legged stool and we’re going to cater to all three legs: the experiential education, the soft skills and the network because your future jobs depend on it.

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