Hard Times Ahead for Those Who Lack Soft Skills

Self-control, teamwork—such skills make the difference in school and the workplace

soft skills
Image: iStock.com/kali9

Just today, President Obama announced that the U.S. high school graduation rate has reached a record 83.2%. All student groups improved, but English language learners and black students made the greatest gains.

That’s great news, but to what can we attribute those gains? Is it higher test scores? Or is it a teacher’s ability to help her students develop soft skills?

The Hamilton Project recently released a report that explores the relationship between what are commonly called soft skills and outcomes in education and employment.

What Are Soft Skills?

Soft skills, also known as social, emotional, and behavioral skills, at one time may have been called character. Researchers like psychologist Angela Duckworth have identified qualities like the ability to persevere in the face of obstacles; conscientiousness, or choosing to do the right thing; and self-control, or the ability to delay gratification. Other such qualities include leadership and the ability to get along with others, otherwise known as social skills.

According to the Hamilton Project, for the past 15 years, education policy has focused on skills that can more easily be tested, like math and reading or language arts. Because of the testing culture in U.S. schools, there’s an emphasis on measuring gains in such cognitive skills.

Cognitive skills are important, but the acquisition of social skills—also called noncognitive skills—is also critical to students’ learning outcomes. Social skills, however, get less attention, perhaps because gains in leadership or teamwork are difficult to measure.

7 Economic Facts

The Hamilton Project reports that hiring managers are as concerned about noncognitive deficits as they are about new hires’ math and language ability. If you can do math but can’t communicate effectively, that’s a problem. If you don’t pay attention to details, if you can’t work well with others—it doesn’t help that your SAT scores were really high.

Of course, employers want both: strong cognitive skills and effective social, emotional, and behavioral skills.

In its report, the Hamilton Project distilled the following seven facts regarding noncognitive, or social, skills and how they affect education and the labor market:

  • Today’s jobs demand more noncognitive [social or behavioral] skills than did jobs in the past.
  • The labor market increasingly rewards noncognitive skills.
  • Those with fewer noncognitive skills are being left behind.
  • Noncognitive skill development interventions improve student achievement and reduce behavior-related problems.
  • Preschool interventions emphasizing cognitive and noncognitive skill development have long-term economic benefits for participants.
  • A teacher’s ability to improve noncognitive skills has more effect on graduation rates than does his or her ability to raise test scores.

To learn more, go here.

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