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The Age of Automation Demands that Students Learn Soft Skills

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It's a hard number to comprehend: 800 million jobs could be lost to automation in the next decade. While some doubt that the number will be quite so high, even if it is off by a factor of ten, it will have an enormous impact on society. Wise educators and other stakeholders need to ask: How best do we prepare students for the coming age of automation? It is hard to determine all of the contours of the answer, but one seems clear: the age of automation demands that students learn soft skills.

While there is no one universally accepted definition of "soft skills," the basic idea is simple: soft skills include everything an employee needs to be successful in her or his position other than academic skills. 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 the patient's family.

There are already some programs in place to teach soft skills to students. It seems to be the case that, the more leisure time students spend in front of screens, the more that some of their soft skills atrophy or never have a chance to develop in the first place. This makes it imperative for parents and teachers to provide students with opportunities to practice these skills. Some of the most crucial soft skills include:

  • Students need to be able to hold face-to-face conversations. They need to be aware of the nonverbal aspects of communication--something often lost in the digital world. They need to be able to speak in public; they need to be good listeners. They also need to be masters of digital communication.
  • Critical Thinking. There are many aspects to critical thinking. To begin, it requires subject matter knowledge. But students also need to understand how and when to apply that knowledge. They need to be clever, creative problem solvers.
  • Students need to know how to work well with others, including in situations that require conflict resolution.
  • No one likes a co-worker with a negative attitude. This includes the ability to work well on teams, to receive feedback, and to act with cultural sensitivity.

All of these soft skills will set any human worker apart from their robotic competition.

 

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