A recent post by Rachel Burstein (Future Tense, September 1, 2014) usefully highlights a great conundrum for employers today in addressing the “skills gap.
” Rachel comments on the ostensible shortage in the U.S. job market of suitable technical and skilled labour applicants for advertised positions. However, she challenges those who believe this situation will be solved by putting more resources into training and education in technical skills.
Because, as the headline to her post reads,
“Tech skills aren’t the be-all and end-all.”
Rachel goes on to underscore the value of “soft skills,” or what I call “transferable skills” or “parallel skills,” that are also crucial in the workplace.
In her words, “the problem with the skills gap argument is that it accounts for only one set of skills that employers consider important,” and that is the set related to specific training that a degree may attest to. The truth is that the skills gap from an employer’s perspective is much broader and includes “skills that aren’t about content or subject matter — skills like communication, critical thinking, creativity, empathy, and understanding of diversity.”
Such skills cut across sector, hierarchy and function, and two in particular, “critical thinking and communication skills,” according to research conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, are thought by 93 per cent of the business and non-profit leaders who were surveyed to be more important than a person’s undergraduate major when it comes to hiring.
Rachel goes on to note that “Professionalism/work ethic, teamwork/collaboration, and oral communication rank among the top five skills valued by employers hiring candidates at any educational level, according to one study. Yet employers rank significant portions of those entering the workforce deficient on all these dimensions.”
She recognizes that there is no “silver bullet” for addressing this gap in a systemic way.
However, her comments suggest that graduate students need to realize the importance of developing these so-called “soft skills” while completing their degrees – which is to say that they need to find strategies for developing transferable skills within their institutional settings.
Universities are becoming aware of the need to make this kind of professional skills development available to their students, and many offer programming that is freely available to all students. Online programming is available too, and we’ve mentioned a number of such opportunities on this blog site. Other blogs can provide valuable leads as well.
But the bottom line is that awareness and determination to focus on soft skills while in school is critical to job market success later.
Business magazine Fast Company thinks that we have to stop thinking we are too busy to take breaks. According to Courtney Seiter (September 4, 2012), there is solid science out there showing that taking time out makes us happier, more focused and more productive.
She provides three “scientific reasons” for prioritizing breaks when you are working:
1. Breaks keep us from getting bored (and thus, unfocused)
“Basically, the human brain just wasn’t built for the extended focus we ask of it these days. Our brains are vigilant all the time because they evolved to detect tons of different changes to ensure our very survival. So focusing so hard on one thing for a long time isn’t something we’re ever going to be great at (at least for a few centuries). The good news is that the fix for this unfocused condition is simple — all we need is a brief interruption (aka a break) to get back on track.”
2. Breaks help us retain information and make connections
“Our brains have two modes: the “focused mode,” which we use when we’re doing things like learning something new, writing or working and “diffuse mode,” which is our more relaxed, daydreamy mode when we’re not thinking so hard. You might think that the focused mode is the one to optimize for more productivity, but diffuse mode plays a big role, too. In fact, although our brains were once thought to go dormant when we daydreamed, studies have shown that activity in many brain regions increases when our minds wander.”
3. Breaks help us re-evaluate our goals
According to the Harvard Business Review, “When you work on a task continuously, it’s easy to lose focus and get lost in the weeds. In contrast, following a brief intermission, picking up where you left off forces you to take a few seconds to think globally about what you’re ultimately trying to achieve. It’s a practice that encourages us to stay mindful of our objectives….”
Courtney’s piece is full of interesting information – including, for example, pictures of brain scans when we are on and off “breaks,” an illustration of the Pomodoro method for time management, Dement and Kleitman’s “90 minute” waveform graph, and scans that show the lit-up brain after exercise.
She also lists four break methods worth trying, and offers a number of other tips, like replenishing your brain with nourishing foods, reading non work-related books, connecting with nature — and taking naps.
There is plenty of good information here. It’s well worth following this link to the article.
April McNeil, a career educator at the University of Victoria, offers tips on what grad students can do to make themselves more attractive to both academic and non-academic employers in this video, which is part of the University Affairs Job Hunt archive.
Three observations stand out for me in April’s short presentation:
- Even if the job market looks bleak in your field at present, it is important to explore what may be out there by the time you graduate by talking to those who have jobs in areas you are interested in. Building relationships by attending events and setting up information interviews is a skill, a way of getting on the “inside track” well before your official job search starts.
- You need to position yourself as an expert in your area of interest. To my mind this is where social media savvy comes in: what are you doing as a grad student to profile yourself or to connect with discussion groups online in your areas of interest or expertise? April says undertaking contract work can enhance your resume and demonstrate that you have applicable skills in your area. Sometimes what you produce in contract work can count as publications that demonstrate your applied research and communications skills. In any case, whatever the contract, the work should be mined for the ways it demonstrates workplace skills that may not be evident from your program of study alone.
- April also emphasizes the importance of “industry connections” – which is to say contact and interaction with the world of work whatever the focus of your degree – even if you decide on an academic career. Administrative skills are important everywhere, and even in faculty jobs these days where we are expected to recruit students, manage budgets, start new programs, attract research grants by partnering with the community, and so on. Such things, she says, can constitute a competitive edge by demonstrating that you have acquired a broader skills set while still a graduate student.