Close the Skills Gap: View College Courses as Soft Skills Education

You may have caught some recent news that employers view college students, despite their shiny degrees, as not yet skilled enough for the workforce.

As a student, recent graduate, or even someone looking for a job, you might think, “Why in the hell was my butt in those seats then? What good did it do?”

You’ll think back to that History or Environmental Science course and feel pissed that, sure, it met requirements for your degree, but isn’t going to mean anything “out there.” You may blame your college and professors for not preparing you well enough for the workforce; you’re not alone: Most of the news about the “workforce gap” finger-points higher education, as well.

As a professor who teaches the skill that employers demand most—communication—I say forget what the news says about employers and their perception of college graduates. Bridge the workforce-higher education gap… yourself… by turning college into your “experience.”

The soft skills employers want are there. You just have to know how to “spin” that curriculum into resume—and interview-worthy—material. And you can! Here’s how:

If you are a current/entering college student:

Research the Soft Skills for Your Intended Job… Now!

Too many students start looking at job posts only when marching toward graduation. Way. Too. Late!

You have to know the requirements while in college—or, better yet, when you’re starting college and picking a major—so you can build your examples, stories, and a checklist of skills to master. Start searching jobs. Your college’s career center can help.

Go to Every Professor with Your List of Soft Skills

Then, ask how your assignments meet those skills. I can guarantee that your courses—regardless of their title—will, at times, require group projects, pair/team activities, presentations, portfolios, service learning … the list is endless!

Every single one of these “tasks” includes a soft skill that an employer wants: interpersonal communication, ability to work in a team, critical thinking, problem solving, decision making. Do you see how employable your courses can make you if you track them in the right way?

Here’s something else that will help not only you, but the students who come after you: Let’s say a course you’re taking right now doesn’t help you gain any of the soft skills that make you employable. Just by mentioning them, and why they are important, you’ll give your prof a hard nudge he/she needs to offer curriculum that makes students more workplace ready. Hint: multiple-choice tests and teaching only from a textbook don’t cut it.

Clubs and Conversations Count, Too

Campus organizations you participate in will offer similar soft skill building opportunities. As you are planning, organizing, and tackling issues, you’re working with a diverse set of colleagues and mentors, right? These are all terrific opportunities to improve your employable skills.

Think about difficult conversations, too. Maybe you have to confront a prof about a grade or lobby for your club have a fund-raiser on a certain day. These “conflict management” episodes translate into awesome testimonies for your communication abilities. So tackle the tough conversations—and then give yourself soft skills credit for them!

Document, Document, Document!

So you don’t forget what you’ve done, keep a special running list or journal of every assignment and accomplishment. Or, send yourself e-mails; NudgeMail is an awesome program to e-mail the future you with information you’ll need.

What if you’ve already graduated, and feel your soft skills are… well… too soft?

Look back at your transcript or any assignments/projects you saved. Contact a prof or three or four who might be willing to help you pull some tangible experience out of what you learned. Your career services office may be able to comb through this material with you, too.

Whining about college being a waste of time because you don’t believe you’ll get a job is pointless. In my opinion, the news reports on this subject leave out a lot of important facts. Many faculty do offer learning opportunities that would mimic skills needed for the workplace; they just don’t have a red, flashing sign around every single project that says so (but, of course, we probably should!).

Start looking at the classes you took or are taking as “on-the-college job training.” Sure, there are a lot of seemingly intangible qualities that employers want. But remember: That butt-in-seat time offers value. A lot of value.

And so do you… to your future employers.

 

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EllenAbout the Author: Ellen Bremen is tenured faculty in the Communication Studies department at Highline Community College (since 2004), and the author of Say This, NOT That to Your College Professor:  36 Talking Tips for College Success.

Ellen’s vast instructional design background, which includes service for higher education, various grants, and private sector clients, led her to become one of ten competitively selected instructional designers for the Gates Foundation’s Open Course Library Grant in 2010-2011. With a love of public speaking that “borders on the ridiculous,” Ellen is an award-winning public speaker who, in 2007, became one of only four Washington State certified speakers for Monster.com’s “Making High School Count” program. Follow Ellen on Twitter!

 

 

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  • Alfred Poor

    +10! Great article, and I have to say that I’d love to take one of your classes, Ellen.

    When I’m speaking to college student audiences, I point out to them that even the worst-taught, most-boring course in their college experience has a lot to teach them in terms of skills that they will need for the working world. If nothing else, learn how not to present information; you’re going to be called on to communicate all sorts of information in your job, no matter what it is, so there’s a lot you can learn even from the worst situation.

    Every course offers opportunities to develop and exercise your verbal and written communications, leadership, and responsibility skills. The cold truth is that nobody will make you recognize those opportunities, let alone take advantage of them. You’re at college; it’s up to you to make the most of what’s available. That’s your job, and the opportunities will be much harder to find once you graduate.

    Thanks again for a great post, Ellen. I hope it gets a lot of readers.

  • Thank you, Alfred! Your points are so true. I think faculty have a huge responsibility to call out to students how many soft skills are inherent in our courses. I teach communication, so that topic is a given (but many students still don’t make the correlation, believe it or not!).

    It is easy for students to complain about how much they didn’t learn in college. But, as we both know, many of the skills are there. It just takes creative spin to message them :-).

    Ellen

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