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How to Teach Students the Social-Emotional Skills That Employers Want

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By Teddy Knox

Economists and business leaders agree: the American workforce is experiencing a skills shortage that is likely to grow. Record-breaking numbers of job openings combined with a relatively stagnant hiring rate provide compelling evidence that employers are searching for qualified candidates but struggling to find them. Recent evidence suggests that the health care, education, and tech sectors are particularly hungry for skilled employees, and more broadly that the U.S. is short 1.4 million professionals with "skills like communication, reasoning, and working in teams."

These social and emotional skills are the focus of a growing body of corporate research. A 2016 analysis of 77 million job postings revealed that by far the most popular skill requested on listings is "oral and written communication," and that eight of the top 20 skills fall into the category of "communication, integration, and presentation." A national survey of employers found their three highest priority skills to be teamwork, decisionmaking, and communication, and of the 16 skills identified by the World Economic Forum as required for 21st century success, 10 relate to teamwork or emotional intelligence.

Teddy Knox.png

So how can the American education system and American employers work together to help prepare students for the 21st-century workforce? The National Commission convened dozens of business leaders to ask exactly that question. Here are some of the main lessons we learned:

The business community values a very broad range of social and emotional skills. When we asked business leaders to list the top skills valued by his/her company or industry, we heard some things we were expecting—communication, teamwork, adaptability—but many more that we hadn't previously heard articulated. Corporate leaders also included skills such as intellectual curiosity; willingness to give and receive feedback; personal ownership of problems and challenges; and recognition of unconscious biases.

Social and emotional skills are explicitly measured and heavily rewarded in hiring and promotion practices. Corporate leaders don't just claim to value social and emotional skills or appreciate them in the abstract; they define their hiring and promotion criteria around them. We heard several corporate leaders describe advancement rubrics that weight "what you do" equally to "how you do it"—meaning that how an employee interacts with teammates, communicates ideas, adapts to challenges, and projects passion on the job is as important as their productivity.

Finding common and accurate language on social and emotional development is key to promoting shared understanding. While our participants did not necessarily agree on what terminology to use when talking about social and emotional development, they did agree that establishing common language is essential to moving toward valuing and discussing it effectively. In particular, the group expressed its distaste for the term "soft skills" and its implicit devaluation of skills that are not "hard" or technical.

Corporate leaders think globally about the assessment and development of social and emotional skills. Throughout the discussion, corporate leaders emphasized a multicultural perspective on social and emotional skills as a priority. Some mentioned cultural sensitivity and the ability to work with diverse teams as key skills for employees. Others, when prompted to describe the ideal learning environments for skill development, mentioned the importance of maintaining diverse spaces for leadership training.

Business leaders have plenty of ideas about what schools can do better. Many members of the focus group offered their perspectives on how schools could improve on properly cultivating social, emotional, and academic development. One speaker criticized feedback and evaluation systems wherein students are graded on and commended for their academic success, but not for social and emotional excellence. Another speaker sensitive to the tight time and resource constraints affecting schools stressed the importance of embedding social and emotional learning into academic curricula.

Teddy Knox was a policy intern with the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. He is currently a junior studying economics and public policy at the University of Chicago. 

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