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November 2011
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TD Magazine

Soft Skills: A Case for Higher Education and Workplace Training

Two education and training experts weigh in on the importance of soft skills proficiency for today's workforce.

Ronnie Ellen Kramer, president of educational training and consulting firm Communication Dynamics Inc., and Tim Hill, president of professional education at Blackboard Inc., urge learning professionals to get serious about soft skills training.

What is the state of soft skills training in the education and business sectors today?

Kramer: Higher education institutions are committed to hard skills training because their courses are designed to teach students a particular craft. Soft skills proficiency is imperative, too, because an employer has a limited worker asset if employees lack these behaviors. Currently there is a movement in higher education to develop the whole person—complete with both hard and soft skills.

Hill: From the business side, the employer often sees a significant gap between the hard and soft skills that a graduate brings to the workplace, with many new employees lacking the soft skills needed for professional success. Traditionally, higher education has not focused on teaching these skills; however, many for-profit sector schools have begun to integrate them into their curriculum, bringing a greater awareness to this growing training need.

How can teachers and trainers effectively incorporate soft skills training into their programs?

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Kramer: When educators design activities for their courses, they should ask four basic questions: What is the purpose of this activity? Why is it important? What competencies are developed as a result? How can the student apply what she's learned in the workplace?

For example, role playing develops critical thinking and communication skills; reflective journaling exercises ones analytical thinking and writing abilities; and group work helps students to understand the value of teamwork and time management.

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Hill: Even if soft skills weren't effectively taught in an employee's undergraduate education, companies can integrate these activities within their training programs. Additionally, coaching and mentoring can help to introduce and hone soft skills. Many young professionals can learn simply by modeling these behaviors.

Which soft skills are most important for today's workplace?

Hill: While it depends on the industry, problem solving, creativity, critical thinking, and communication comprise the core soft skills for any business. Ultimately, every company is driving toward the same goals—profitability and client satisfaction—so these basic skills can benefit any employee in any job.

How can educators and employers partner to enable effective soft skills training?

Kramer: Career schools spend a lot of energy developing advisory boards comprised of practitioners. These groups suggest that schools continually update their curriculum and teaching methods based on feedback from board members. Also, schools can build externships into their programs to develop students' professional experiences, with the goal that students will be hired by employer organizations upon graduation. The school can then survey an employer six months after the student is placed and incorporate feedback about the student's preparation into the course.

About the Author

Community of Practice Manager, ATD  Ann Parker is senior manager of the Human Capital Community of Practice and the Senior Leaders & Executives Community of Practice at ATD. Prior to this position, she worked at ATD for five years in an editorial capacity, primarily for TD magazine, and most recently as a senior writer and editor. In this role, Ann had the privilege to talk to many training and development practitioners, hear from a variety of prominent industry thought leaders, and develop a rich understanding of the profession's content.

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