The College of Idaho on Business

Scott Johnson: College students, new grads might need soft-skills help

Director of The College of Idaho's Business and Accounting DepartmentApril 16, 2014 

Johnson, Scott

Scott Johnson


Last month, I mentioned that college business students often obsess more about the hard, or technical, skills and leave the soft, or interpersonal, skills to chance or instinct.

This might happen for a couple of reasons. Students' ability to demonstrate their competence with calculations and programs can be measured and compared against a correct format or solution, for one thing. The codes of accounting and finance and computer applications are not innately familiar and are like learning a foreign language for many.

So if students do not grasp the nuances easily, and struggle to get the correct results, they may focus more of their energies into trying to decipher these codes in pursuit of better grades. There is more stress in studying for the accounting exam and more relief when it is over, although uncertainty about whether they got the right answer might replace preparation anxiety.

Soft skills like effectively communicating with others and working productively in teams may seem familiar and intuitive to students, and so not worthy of extra study or practice. Instructors could be contributing to this misperception by continuously assigning group projects and presentations without ensuring sufficient understanding of the process as well as the outcomes.

Some students believe they already know enough, or they can "wing it." This attitude leads to another misperception of the hard/soft skills distinction, where hard is defined as difficult or challenging and soft is defined as easy or common sense.

But common sense suggests a shared understanding by nearly all people, and employers repeatedly cite a lack of this awareness and competence among many people just entering the workforce.

In a Time magazine article Nov. 10, 2013, Martha C. White examined "The Real Reason New College Grads Can't Get Hired." She found that entry-level candidates are unable show up on time, dress appropriately or have a clue about the fundamentals of office life. (Yes, time management, self-awareness and cultural intelligence are all considered soft skills). White cites a college survey that found more than 60 percent of employers say applicants lack "communication and interpersonal skills" - a jump of about 10 percentage points in just two years.

So, what should we do? Make the learning of soft skills more challenging and unfamiliar and instill some fear of failure into the students?

A better approach is to provide more support and guidance through connecting students or those new to the workplace with successful business people who are willing to share their insights. The College of Idaho Business Advisory Council's mentoring program, for example, matches students with alumni and community members who want to ensure success in school, work and life.

As professional mentors actively listen, provide feedback and share advice - perhaps on making decisions or resolving conflict - they are "stealth teaching" soft skills and helping students realize their importance through real-world application.

In leading by example, mentors will instill their sense of commitment and continuous learning to the mentees, who in turn will no doubt inspire the mentors with their enthusiasm, imagination and ideas for the future. Uncommon sense, indeed.; 459-5219

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