Rapidly advancing technology, including automation and AI and its impact on education, skills and learning in the UK, is a subject of much debate for universities. How can institutions equip students with the skills they need to succeed in a changing jobs market? It’s a valid question, though often the answers are the problem.
Since technology is driving these changes, there’s an assumption that the government should keep focusing on Stem subjects. These are often referred to as “hard skills”, which are prioritised in primary school and right through to university level. In the meantime, “soft skills” – which are already disadvantaged by the term’s connotations – are being relegated even further down the pecking order in terms of curriculum must-haves.
This is a mistake. Much evidence suggests that soft skills are far more beneficial to graduates than is currently acknowledged. Research from Harvard University on the global jobs market has shown that Stem-related careers grew strongly between 1989 and 2000, but have stalled since. In contrast, jobs in the creative industries – the sector probably most associated with the need for soft skills – in the UK rose nearly 20% to 1.9m in the five years to June 2016. Soft skills are in fact increasingly in demand in the workplace: Google cites creativity, leadership potential and communication skills as top prerequisites for both potential and current employees.
So why, in an age cited as the “fourth industrial revolution”, are soft skills so highly sought after? With the rapid evolution of technology, a focus on hard skills leaves students vulnerable to change, as these often have a shorter shelf life.
According to research by the World Economic Forum, more than one in four adults reported a mismatch between their skills and those needed for their job role. Although technical skills, such as learning to code, can be taught and assessed more easily and soft skills take time to develop and are more complex in nature, the latter can turn out to be more beneficial in the long term. If taught well, these skills should enable students to adapt to change more easily, gain a greater understanding of people and the world around them, and ultimately progress further in their chosen career.
To return to the Google example, many of the company’s top “characteristics of success” are soft skills: being a good coach, communicating and listening well, possessing insights into other points of view, being supportive of one’s colleagues, critical thinking and problem solving, and being able to make connections across complex ideas. It’s these fundamentally human emotional and social skills which should be nurtured, developed and celebrated as the key to future success for students and society in general.
Many universities have embraced this, teaching students soft skills such as critical thinking, idea generation and interdisciplinary ways of working alongside hard skills. But the issue goes much deeper: it needs to be tackled across the entire education system, so that by the time students reach university level they are already familiar with the importance of, and the qualities needed to develop, these essential skills.
With enrolment in arts and humanities degrees in decline and the government’s continued focus on technical Stem subjects, the value of soft skills may be in danger of being lost along the way. Perhaps a good place to start would be a reframing of the language we use to describe these skills as, if the evidence is correct, they’re not so “soft” after all.