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The Amorphous Blob that is "Soft Skills"

If I were on the team that chooses the buzz word of the year, my selection for 2015 would actually be two words: soft skills. Thanks to WIOA’s recent appearance in the worlds of education and workforce training, soft skills has become something of a viral celebrity, like that picture of the homeless dog hugging another dog…but maybe not the “tugs at your heartstrings” part, or that little girl rocking out at her dance recital to Aretha Franklin…but maybe not with the attitude. But if I were a betting girl, I’d say that most of the people who are throwing around the term “soft skills” have no idea what they are talking about.

So…what are soft skills, and why do I need to know?

Soft skills can be defined as behaviors that help people work well in a collaborative environment. I tend to think of these skills as things that good parents used to teach their kids: Show up on time, do your best, be nice to others, have self-awareness, figure it out yourself. But these skills can easily fit into four categories, actually what I like to call the 4 C’s: Communication, Critical Thinking, Collaboration, and Creativity.

My friends at NPR have a great post about this (and that’s where I got this fabulous graphic as well). What should we call “soft skills”? Popular terms include 21st Century Skills, Grit, Growth Mindset (which I would argue is actually a characteristic of these other terms).

Regardless, people need these skills to be successful in any environment. US News and World Report tells us that in fact, soft skills, it seems, are just as important as academic ability when it comes to being successful in college or the workplace. Time management, organization, teamwork are some of the broad categories in which students must demonstrate prowess. I know that as a person who chose to take 21-24 hour college semesters, organization and time management were absolute key to my success: In fact, in my hardest semester, I was turning in assignments 3 weeks ahead of the due dates. And since you’re wondering, I actually had a great social life as well, and no, I didn’t major in kinesiology.

Why have we lost these skills as a society…if we ever had them to start with?

I argue that social media, texting, television, and the like are hugely to blame. I no longer have to call anyone, or drive anywhere to speak with a friend. I can tweet her, or text her, or better yet, just ignore her existence entirely because Dancing With the Stars is having Disney night, and who wouldn’t want to see Derek Hough rock out in a Prince Charming costume? When was the last time you saw a family actually interacting at a restaurant instead of playing on cell phones/iPads? We have become an impersonal society, so without chances to practice, these skills fall by the wayside.

All that to say, how can you teach organization and time management?

In my work, I encourage programs to a) model what they want to see in their students, and b) set up in-class procedures that foster the characteristics that employers are so desperate to see in potential employees. Don’t show up yourself looking like you just rolled out of bed, and consider a classroom dress code. Make students clock in and clock out. Have rewards for students’ good attendance. Constantly assign students to group work where they have assigned and ever-changing roles such as facilitator, recorder, and encourager. Trying to teach these skills out of context as a separate entity won’t result in an authentic experience for your students. It would be like teaching a doctor how to do an appendectomy without ever giving her the chance to do it herself. Theory and practice are two different animals.

But making these skills a seamless part of your classroom environment without drawing attention to them is key. When these practices become second nature for your students, you’ll have won, and the likelihood is that they will win at life, too.

In closing, as educators, it is our job to help create well-rounded individuals out of our students. That includes, perhaps even more importantly, fostering behaviors that help them be successful in the workplace. After all, your students may be the ones at the other end of that 7-step-long phone tree someday. And hopefully, because of you, they’ll know not to say, “S’up?”

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