Teaching soft skills is the key to our future

OMAR BHATTI
Published 20.02.2019 00:07

Today's business organizations operate in a very challenging environment where competition is extreme and cutthroat. Business leaders, CEOs and managers expect university graduates to be well-versed and fully prepared to tackle tasks and challenges. However, a recent survey showcases facts differently, where employers have indicated that university graduates are not prepared for real-world work tasks and trails. As per the existing research reports, business leaders and managers confirm that 58 percent of university graduates seriously need to improve their skills for being successful in entry-level positions. Likewise, they also report that graduates are required to improve their skills set and knowledge base if they want to excel in their careers.

Notably, employers are asserting that universities need to do more to ensure that the graduates are ready and up for the challenge. What concerns most at the present are projections that predict artificial intelligence will allow machines and robots to replace millions of jobs in the next few decades. So much so, that McKinsey & Co. has drawn a number of scenarios signifying that nearly 30 percent, but more likely about 15 percent, of current work could be automated by 2030. This would potentially impact as many as 800 million workers globally.

Addressing these concerns, Alibaba CEO Jack Ma recently said: "Do not teach knowledge based on things from the past 200 years. [...] Education for sure is a big c

hallenge at present. And if we do not amend the way we teach, we will be in big trouble 30 years from now. The objective or idea is to teach students values, believing, independent thinking, teamwork, care for others and so forth. In short, the focus of today's education system should be in improving the overall soft skills of the students."

In this context, one may agree with the given argument. In fact, a good amount of research supports the belief that hard skills are teachable and that they may be learned and developed through self-study, work experience, education or training.

Notably, these skills are more industry-specific and vary from job to job. For instance, having expertise in econometrics, wireless engineering and computing, nursing and sociological skills and so forth. Though, hard skills are vital to executing a particular job, the absence of "soft skills" can be a key limitation for future workers. To endorse this theory, a recent study done by the Stanford Institute and the Carnegie Melon Foundation clearly showcased that 75 percent of success in long-term work depends on soft skills, with only 25 percent dependent on technical skills.

Solution-oriented programs

To improve the employability of future students, universities worldwide are increasing the number of courses that primarily focus on improving soft skills. Generally, the programs offered an emphasis on critical thinking, problem-solving, communication skills, foreign languages, conflict resolution, work ethics, social responsibility, teamwork, creativity and innovation. University professors acknowledge that some soft skills are best grown and refined outside the walls of academia. In an innovative approach to develop social skills among students, many Australian universities encourage them to sign up for extra credit points by serving on a student council, faculty-student advisory board or volunteering in community services. Likewise, Chinese universities are also offering innovation and enterprise education programs, which include simulation courses, business plan competitions and a business incubator or science park. In addition to improving hard skills, soft skills training is offered to encourage competencies in foreign languages, communication skills, critical thinking and analysis, creativity and understanding of other cultures and countries.

These practical approaches to soft skills teaching seem logical and appropriate; however, the changing philosophies and notions supporting the soft skills training debate have also resulted in an array of university courses and programs. These courses and programs are being offered without any agreement on truly understanding the precise nature of soft skills or how they can be fostered in the given training courses. Further, based on the existing research findings one can carefully state that it is also challenging to accurately define soft skills. This argument is supported by a number of studies that affirm that some soft skills in practice are more or less unteachable. Moreover, soft skills, pertaining to self-esteem, self-confidence, integrity and ethics, can only be acquired through self-realization, an act that most researchers believe is currently beyond the reach of generic education strategies. So, although universities are teaching conventional soft skills, no one seems to be addressing the higher-level human qualities that are important for moving ahead of machines.

Keeping in mind the arguments presented in this brief article, it is more of a wake-up call for us as academics and scholars to focus on this subject matter. Especially in the context of Turkey, universities need to define and describe how they can improve the overall soft skills of their students. A detailed re-examination is required as to how our universities can improve human qualities among students. It is important to note that human qualities are divided into three areas: Essential qualities, like empathy, intuition, creativity, passion and the desire to learn throughout their lives; qualities of effective team members, meaning being a good listener, persuasiveness, responsibility, accountability and leadership; and fundamental human qualities, for instance honesty, integrity, courage, self-awareness and living passionately. Importantly, these human qualities need to be focused on within Turkish universities and by academics and scholars if we want to produce sustainable human capital not only for Turkey but for the rest of the world.

* Associate professor, Faculty of Business and Management, Istanbul Medipol University

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