Hard questions on soft skills

Andrew Herrmann

Technology is rapidly reshaping the workplace, bringing demand for new skills. But the skills that will define successful future workers have always been integral.

As many of the routine technical tasks currently performed by people are increasingly automated, workers are likely to devote more of their time to tasks that depend on so-called ‘soft skills’.

Old skills, new demand

Soft skills are those innately human qualities that technology struggles to replicate: leadership, creativity, emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills and so on.

By 2030, soft skill intensive occupations are predicted to make up almost two thirds of all Australian jobs (up from just over half in 2000). Employer demand for soft skills is reportedly increasing, and research indicates that shortages already exist in the Australian workforce.

Similar trends are emerging in the United States, driving increasing recognition in both countries of the need to equip young people with these qualities.

For policymakers, determining how to develop young people’s soft skills presents a formidable challenge.

An untrodden path

To some degree, soft skill development is out of policymakers’ hands. Young people learn to communicate, lead or resolve conflicts in the home, on sports fields and in various other non-classroom settings.

Schools still have an important role to play. Australia’s national schooling curriculum recognises this, enshrining critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, and ethical and intercultural understanding as ‘General Capabilities’ essential for ‘students to live and work successfully in the twenty-first century’.

But what do these capabilities look like in the classroom?

Unlike traditional subject areas, there is no longstanding history of best practice when it comes to teaching many soft skills. For many educators, this new imperative demands unfamiliar styles of instruction.

In Australia, select schools have partnered with the Mitchell Institute, or with the Australian Council for Educational Research, in trialling new classroom projects and teaching methods for the General Capabilities.

Similar action is underway across various US states and school districts, often in partnership with non-profits like the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, and Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.

Such initiatives are encouraging, but sporadically implemented. The path forward may simply require patience to allow time for exploratory programs to deliver insights, and then scale what works best.

But Australian schools are required to teach the ‘General Capabilities’ now. In the absence of widely accepted and accessible strategies, schools and educators are often left to devise their own approaches to teaching soft skills.

This decentralisation – a hallmark of the US education system, where states and school districts have considerable independence – can foster experimentation and innovation. But it can also lead to inequality, and duplication. When it comes to teaching soft skills, there is a real risk that many educators are devoting precious time and resources toward simply reinventing the wheel.

Quantifying the seemingly unquantifiable?

Assessing students’ soft skills progression and the efficacy of teaching methods presents a key puzzle for educators and policymakers.

The OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment survey has previously tested students’ creative and collaborative problem solving skills with apparent success, providing internationally comparable data on the proficiency of 15 year olds in over 50 countries. A further OECD study seeks to develop transplantable teaching and assessment tools for creative and critical thinking.

New South Wales recently trialed a critical thinking exam for Year 11 students, whilst the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority has developed online tests and progression standards for creative and critical thinking.

These efforts are promising. But critical and creative thinking can more readily be assessed and measured than qualities like leadership and ethical judgement.

Soft skills proficiency can be differentiated. In the workplace for example, it’s often not difficult to distinguish an effective leader, communicator or teammate from an ineffective one.

But how do educators translate such judgments into precise, detailed and systematic estimations of students’ soft skills, upon which they can reflect and improve?

Imagine your child’s report card reading: ‘Leadership: A-, Intercultural Understanding: B+, Adaptability: D’. What exactly would these grades denote? How would they be calculated?

Simple quantitative measures don’t provide an overly meaningful estimation of students’ soft skills. Complementing new teaching methods, early research indicates that qualitative, individualised and more nuanced feedback is more valuable in developing soft skills.

But the question looms as to how a shift from quantitative to qualitative affects young people’s ability to demonstrate soft skill proficiency to prospective employers.

This may be more relevant for university graduates. But quantitative measures offer employers an independently verifiable and simple (if not always representative) means of assessing a job candidate’s proficiency in a certain area.

Ultimately, soft skills education remains a nascent mission in Australia, the US and across the world. Australian policymakers shouldn’t hesitate to look abroad for insights in implementation. But at this point, simply asking the right questions is more important than settling too early on the answers.

Andrew Herrmann is a Research Assistant in the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Program at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. This is based upon his co-authored report ‘Future workers: Computer science, apprenticeships and soft skills’.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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