Building Soft Skills and Employment Pathways


Posted In: Workforce Insight, Workforce Research

Feb • 27 • 2017

Building Soft Skills and Employment Pathways

If you haven’t seen the ebook that we recently released, The Liberal Arts at the Office: Addressing the New Skills Gap, it includes insights from leading voices on the role that foundational lifelong skills play in the workplace for entry-level and frontline employees.


One of those experts was Ryan Craig, the author of College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education and of a popular newsletter analyzing the higher education and workforce development marketplace. His investment fund University Ventures , where he is managing director, works with colleges and universities that often form innovative partnerships with companies to bridge the last mile to training.


We weren’t able to include everything in the eBook that Craig had to say about how employers are working on the “soft skills” challenge, so we offer you this longer version of his interview.


There’s a perception that business just wants job training and that colleges are being pressured to compromise on the liberal arts, but surveys of business leaders don’t support that. Do you think employers value liberal arts skills?


If you ask a senior executive at a large organization, they believe executive function skills — critical thinking, problem-solving, and the like — are best developed through a liberal arts curriculum and a four-year degree. But if you ask the algorithms that are currently the gatekeeper to their organizations via the applicant tracking systems, those are filtering based on keywords that incorporate more technical skills than cognitive skills.


Part of the reason is it is easier to identify technical skills required for a job than to think of ten different ways to say “critical thinking and problem-solving.” But the brilliant liberal arts graduate is not going to get through the filters despite your belief in the value of a liberal arts education.


It sounds like there isn’t a good way to convey what foundational skills are and why they’re needed.


That’s the fundamental source of the skills gap. The only way to address it is through competency-based hiring, which means you are actually valuing the competence of the candidate and not just what keywords you were able to glean from their resume. That means looking at work samples, credentials, badges, and assessments that are done previously or in real time.


These are the ways sourcing and training are going to be done in the future, because when you’ve got eight million people looking for work and six million jobs, clearly there’s something broken with our filtering functions.


What are you hearing on this subject from the companies you are investing in?


It’s all about building bridges between the competency suppliers and those who are demanding the competencies. Unless you have those connections, I don’t care what a university is doing in terms of credentialing competency-based education: it’s meaningless to the employer. Candidates are going to be screened out by the algorithms and not seen by the human hiring manager.


Universities also need to incorporate more technical skills into the curriculum, whether they do it themselves or by partnering with a third party. Graduates should be conversant with the basic applications of the professional world — not just Microsoft Office but tools like Salesforce.


What would you advise employers and educators about developing both foundational and technical skills?


The most remarkable development in higher education is not the affordability crisis. It’s that we’ve gone from 50% of students enrolling in higher education primarily for reasons of employability to more than 90%. We have a generation that is hard-headed and practical. They are there for one reason: this is the price of entry to a job in a profession valued and respected in our economy, and there is no other path. So we absolutely expect to see more differentiated, lower cost, and quicker paths emerging.