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Tech Advances, Automation Fueling Employers' Demand for 'Soft Skills'

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Attention to detail. Oral and written communication. Problem Solving. Resilience. Empathy. Integrity.

Skills like these are often known as "soft skills"—in contrast to things that sound more academically grounded, like computational ability or scientific reasoning. They aren't easy to capture on standardized tests, or even in grading.

But demand for these skills is rising fast, according to an analysis by Parker Dewey, an organization that connects college students with businesses for so-called "micro-internships." (short-term workplace-based learning experiences.) And experts say demand is growing because technology advances are automating computational and other technical tasks typically performed by people. 

Employers seeking students for those micro-internship opportunities said they were most interested in:

  • Attention to detail
  • Communication (oral and/or written)
  • Dependability/reliability
  • Empathy
  • Flexibility
  • Integrity
  • Organization
  • Problem solving
  • Resilience
  • Whether or not a student is "a "self-starter."

The top three areas in which employers were hoping to hire students for short internships? Marketing (39 percent), sales (16 percent), and operations (11 percent), according to the analysis.

The findings, while striking, aren't exactly going to come as a huge surprise to the K-12 field, which has been striving to help students master "soft skills" alongside academic ones for at least a decade. (Check out this 2007 story from my colleague Catherine Gewertz on how high schools were beginning to score students on skills such as oral communication and collaboration alongside course content.)

Part of the reason for the emphasis: The needs of the workforce are changing, thanks in large part to advances in technology. For instance, last year, Matthew Lynch, an educational consultant who owns Lynch Consulting, wrote that a whopping 800 million jobs could be lost to automation over the next decade. His solution? Teaching students "soft skills" that can't be easily performed by a machine. 

"It should be apparent that, while we may be able to automate cars in the next decade or two, we are nowhere close to automating the work of social workers, therapists, educators, and others whose jobs focus around soft-skills—or on the softer aspects of other jobs, such as the need for surgeons to communicate with a patient's family," Lynch wrote in this Education Futures blog post 

But gauging student progress on these soft skills can prove controversial. Measuring social-emotional traits has drawn interest from private companies that have developed software, wearable devices, and other technology to track students' emotions and mindsets, my colleague Ben Herold reported last year. That has spurred privacy concerns and pushback from parents who are concerned about how the results will be used.

To dig into more future of work issues impacting the K-12 world, see our special report, "Schools and the Future of Work."

Image: Getty Images


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