Are Universities Doing Enough To Develop Soft Skills?
Haris graduated from a reputable university in 2019. A business major he soon found a job in the corporate sector. 6 months in his job, Haris found that there was a huge disconnect between the things he studied at university and the tasks he had to perform. Moreover, he learned that navigating the workplace meant dealing with stress, difficult coworkers, office politics, demanding bosses and tough situations. Within a few months, Haris felt his mental health suffering. He was depressed and desperately wanted to switch jobs.
This is not just Haris’s story. Hundreds of fresh graduates go through similar situations. Which makes one wonder that what purpose is higher education actually serving apart from handing out a degree? Are four years of university enough to equip students with necessary skills to grapple with the demands of professional life? Or has the four-year model become obsolete?
In a workplace which is becoming more demanding, strenuous and competitive by the day, the need for strong soft skills is more than ever. Soft skills are behaviors and social attitudes that allow people to communicate effectively, collaborate, and successfully manage conflict. People with good soft skills possess a strong Emotional intelligence or EQ which is the “ability to recognize, understand, manage, and reason with emotions.” Some of the most essential soft skills required in the workplace are Communication, Problem-solving, Stress management, Adaptability, Conflict management, Persuasion, negotiation and Openness to criticism. In the near future, the most valuable work skills will be those which cannot be automated, like soft skills. Inadequate soft skills impact the employees, organizations and economy. Lack of effective communication and conflict management leads to tension in the workplace among coworkers, creating toxic environments affecting employees’ mental health. This results in high turnover rates thus incurring losses to the businesses and economy.
Higher education system lacks a framework to impart soft skills necessary to navigate the modern knowledge economy and demands of an increasingly complex labor market and workplace. University students hardly get any training or mentoring to develop their soft skills. STEM majors get on hands on practical experience of hard skills needed in their professions. For example, doctors practice surgery or software developers learn coding but they too lack any training of soft skills. On the other hand, majority of liberal arts and business majors get to learn neither hard nor soft skills. They take classes, learn from PowerPoints, readouts or books and give exams. In between they give presentations, write papers or work on case studies. Some students do work part time or are active in extracurricular activities like being engaged in societies organizing events. This does provide them with a platform to develop their skills.
In Pakistan, unlike the west, majority of the young people normally don’t start working and remain financially dependent on their parents until they have graduated from university. Internships can be helpful but they are for short period of time and most of the times don’t quite provide the experience of full-time work. Hence the fresh grads are not exposed to the complexities of professional life. Entering the job market can be kind of a disruptive experience especially if there is a mismatch between graduates’ skills and demands of a continuously evolving and dynamic labor market.
Several studies have voiced concerns about this widening gap between skills and the demands of the work environment. A 2009 study “The graduate attributes we have overlooked: enhancing graduate employability through career management skills”, established that graduates often lack the ability to apply their skills to new situations. In 2012, McKinsey Center for Government conducted a survey of youth, education providers, and employers in nine countries. The findings were presented in a detailed report titled “Education to Employment: Designing a system that works”. The results found that today we are faced with a paradox of both high unemployment and a shortage of skills. 36% of employers believe that lack of skills caused “significant problems in terms of cost, quality, and time” whereas half of youth are unsure that their higher education has improved their chances of finding decent employment.
It is necessary to develop a holistic framework based on research to impart soft skills and training for students. Traditional approaches of lecturing from PowerPoint presentations and books are not proving to be very helpful. Although universities have problem-solving and critical thinking methods based on activities such as case studies, simulations, group projects and presentations but a lot more needs to be done. The percentage of these activities in the overall grade should be increased and students should be evaluated on the basis of these activities instead of written final exams.
Soft skills should be also taught separately. A training module can be developed and psychologists and trainers can be hired to impart these trainings. In some universities, it is compulsory for students to engage in a community service project to graduate since they have credit hours. Soft skills training should be incorporated in the curriculum in a similar fashion. Specific credit hours should be allocated to the training and rigorous evaluation methods should be developed to monitor progress and results. Soft skills are the need of the hour and it is important that higher education institutes all over the world and especially in Pakistan give it serious thought. Investing in soft skills development would go a long way and would benefit everyone from students and employees to businesses and economy.
Bridgstock, R. (2009) The graduate attributes we‘ve overlooked: enhancing graduate employability through career management skills. Higher Education Research & Development, 28, 1, 31-44.
Mourshed, M., Farrell, D., Barton, D. (2012). Education to employment: Designing a system that works. Washington, DC: McKinsey Center for Government.
The writer has a masters in Public Policy. He loves watching world cinema and having intellectually stimulating conversations.