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Bringing Soft Skills to the Forefront: How Higher Ed (and Continuing Ed) Must Adapt

The EvoLLLution | Bringing Soft Skills to the Forefront: How Higher Ed (and Continuing Ed) Must Adapt
The demand for soft skills in the workplace is growing, and to this point postsecondary institutions have been slow in helping students and graduates develop these competencies—but CE divisions could be the catalyst for change in labor market preparedness.

Technology, globalization and demographic shifts are shaping how businesses compete in the 21st century. Today’s workplace is transforming; automation and artificial intelligence are taking on more and more jobs normally done by humans. Because of this, there is a growing demand for employees to perform the kind of tasks that artificial intelligence cannot do—work in dynamic teams, adapt to changing requirements, communicate well, analyze and solve problems swiftly.

Soft skills, non-cognitive skills, non-technical skills, interpersonal proficiency are terms used to describe the people skills identified by employers as essential for success in today’s workplace. Soft skills are transferable between industries and occupations, and while there are multiple definitions, there is a general consensus that soft skills are made up of a combination of the four Cs: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.

Soft Skills for Business Success reports that two-thirds of jobs will be “soft skills intensive” by 2030, compared to half of all jobs in 2000.[1] The report also asserts that number of jobs in soft skill-intensive occupations is expected to grow at 2.5 times the rate of jobs in other occupations. The Seattle Jobs Initiative in 2013 reported that 75 percent of the businesses surveyed rated soft skills as equally important or more important than technical skills for securing employment.[2] Despite this growing workforce need, there appears to be deficit in the soft-skill competencies of college graduates.

So why are soft skills underdeveloped in higher education?

One answer may lay in the traditional role of higher education as a place for acquiring knowledge rather than skills. Andreas Schleicher, director of education at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) suggests, “We have designed our education systems around the norms of the industrial society. … This artificial dichotomy between knowledge and skills that has been invented by educators, this is not a phenomenon we find in the real world.”[3]

Traditional higher education curricula may not be sufficient for developing critical 21st-century skills. A group of deans of agricultural universities in eastern and southern Africa describe their ideal graduates: “They would be creative and critical thinkers, team players, take responsibility for their own development, and be able to facilitate learning in groups and committees. They would also have substantial management capacities and excellent communication skills. Most of these soft skills are not considered in the present curricula.”[4] Recent studies suggest the most efficient way to learn soft skills is through the addition of soft-skill outcomes alongside disciplinary outcomes as part of an integrated course of study. However, at present there are few curricular models like this for higher education to follow.

Addressing the Gap

A number of entrepreneurial organizations are taking advantage of the soft-skill gap to create new programming. Soft skill boot camps are popping up as online self-paced courses or intensive workshops delivered by professional trainers. SkillsCamp, Wonderlic Soft Skills Consortium, and Penn Foster Career Ready, are examples of these programs. It is not surprising that the private sector is stepping into this space given the outcry from business and industry.

Leadership, interpersonal and intercultural communication skills have traditionally been included in the campus experience through extracurricular activities. Athletics, study abroad, student clubs, residence life, internships, undergraduate research experiences, service learning, and campus employment have been vehicles for students to explore interests and develop skills outside of the classroom. In recent years, however, colleges and universities are starting to embed these kind of practical experiences as co-curricular requirements for degrees.

Co-curricular study abroad, study away, or service learning experiences provide students opportunities to develop communication skills and build relationships with groups they wouldn’t normally meet in their classrooms. Other co-curricular programs, such as maker spaces, incubator labs and innovation hubs are recently popping up on college campuses. These spaces allow students to transform ideas into products or solutions to social issues, and encourage innovation and creative problem solving. Innovation hubs also connect students to members of local communities and industry where they can start to build professional networks.

Higher education institutions are also taking a more intra-curricular approach to the development of soft skills. Professors who use punctuality and participation grades in their courses aim to hold students more accountable for being organized, self-motivated, punctual and demonstrating work ethic.[5]  Teaching methodologies that promote active learning experiences rather than lectures, those that incorporate experiential learning, role play and demonstration, team projects/group work, case studies and problem-solving tasks also increase opportunities for students to develop non-cognitive skills within their courses. However, there is little research into effective ways to measure soft-skill outcomes concurrently with measuring technical or disciplinary outcomes. A first step towards recognizing soft-skill attainment in higher education is the development of digital badging programs.

Where Does Continuing Education Fit In?

Continuing education is uniquely positioned to address the soft-skill gap in higher education through integrating soft-skill curricula into current non-credit offerings, and in the development of digital credentialing systems that can evaluate and recognize soft-skill competencies in CE programs and on campus.

Professional certificate programs are often offered part-time in the evenings, weekends or online to working adults; those desiring to get back into the workforce, change professional direction, or move up the career ladder through upskilling. With less competitive admissions and much lower cost than degrees, non-credit certificate programs are generally taught by working professionals. Because of their focus on applied skills, certificate programs easily integrate authentic and project-based learning, small group collaboration, case studies, discussions and role plays – precisely the pedagogy that promotes soft skill development. Within CE professional certificate programs, soft skills developed in discipline-specific certificate programs can be defined, taught, measured, acknowledged and recognized. These could then be marketed as the value-added advantage of CE programs in meeting student and employer needs.

Proficient in skills-based approaches and in providing alternative credentials through non-credit certificate programming, CE units can also leverage digital authentication systems to make soft-skill learning visible. Digital badges and micro-credentials offered by CE units can add value to existing campus programs through providing processes and tools for evaluating the soft skill competencies developed in curricular, co-curricular and extracurricular campus programs. The non-profit Education Design Lab is already partnering with universities in the 21st Century Badging Challenge to help institutions develop and offer digital badges in the four C’s as well as empathy, cross-cultural competency, and resilience to degree-seeking students.

The rigorous process of earning digital badges allows students to understand, demonstrate and articulate the transferable soft skills they have developed in their non-credit or degree programs. Digital badges can also provide employers additional criteria from which to measure entry-level skills in new graduates.

Through acknowledging the growing gap in critical workforce skills and in bringing soft skills to the forefront, CE units can continue to be catalysts for transforming the way higher education prepares students for not only the changing workplace of today, but also for that of tomorrow.

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[1] Deloitte Access Economics, “Soft Skills for Business Success, May 2017, available from Deloitte Australia website, accessed Oct 5, 2017.

[2] Jennifer Pritchard, “The Importance of Soft Skills in Entry-Level Employment and Post-Secondary Success: Perspectives from Employers and Community Colleges”, Report from the Seattle Jobs Initiative. 2013, accessed Oct 5, 2017.

[3] John Elmes. “Students need ‘soft skills’ courses as part of degrees” Times Higher Education, Nov 5, 2016, Times Higher Education online, accessed Oct 5, 2017.

[4] Jürgen Hagmann and Connie Almekinders et al, “Developing ‘soft skills’ in higher education, PLA Notes 48: Learning and teaching participation, Oct 2003, accessed Oct 5, 2017.

[5] Charlotte Kent, “To Solve the Skills Gap in Hiring, Create Expectations in the Classroom”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb 7, 2016, from The Chronicle of Higher Education online, accessed Sept 15, 2017.

Other References

Greenberg, Alan D and Nilsson, Andrew, “Putting into Perspective the Priorities and Opportunities for Teaching Collaboration and Other Soft Skills in Education”. Wainhouse Research White Paper: The Role of Education in Building Soft Skills. Oct 20, 2014, available from, accessed Oct 5, 2017.

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