Skills Gaps, Soft Skills, and the Promise of Potential

As I am now the age of my parents were when I was in college, I find that anytime I start to talk about students in college today, I sound like an old person: “kids these days,” “in my day,” and other indicators of massive generational difference and bias start to creep into my speech.

When I came across this article about a “skills gap,” I expected to find someone also using the same sort of parlance. However, her assertion--that students lack “soft skills” like discipline, punctuality, and other markers of the loosely defined concept of “strong work ethic”--is backed up by data: employers find a significant gap between an employee’s skill level and their performance.

Let me say first that I am not the arbiter of what constitutes a strong work ethic, nor an exemplar: I basically spent the first year working on my dissertation watching lots of game shows. I did learn from that experience though, thanks to a wake-up call from my adviser and a more alert sense of my own pride.

However, there is something more than pride at stake here. And there is something more here than the author’s assertion (with which I largely agree) that faculty do a disservice by giving students leeway, free reign, or second chances. When there is a gap between what students can do and how they actually perform, not only are employers losing out, but so too are students; there is nothing worse to me than students not realizing their potential. Our new tagline--”Capitalize on Your Potential”--is not a mere play on words, but a call for students to take their potential and run with it. If what holds them back is a lack of discipline, responsibility, or “sticktoitiveness,” then I agree that we have a responsibility to teach that to them.

Those teachable moments can of course take place in the classroom, as the author advocates; however, I would (perhaps with little astonishment to you) also argue that those teachable moments about these soft skills can happen far more effectively in the workplace through an internship. Being late to class and being marked absent is one thing; being late to your internship and missing a presentation or failing to complete a task has far greater ramifications--and impact on students.

Often, I think we (rightly) focus on the professional skills students gain through internships, but I think perhaps the most important skill students learn is being professional. In my travels last week, I met with two recent alumni who both told me that they were changed by participating in the program. Yes, they gained professional skills, made new friends, and expanded their network; however, they both stressed that they changed personally: they became more responsible, more intolerant of slacking, more mature. I just know that, by gaining these “soft skills,” these students will be more productive and more content.


English Majors Can't Get Jobs, and Other Fallacies

Earlier this month, the Modern Language Association held their annual convention. The MLA is to English and Foreign Language professors, as the American Medical Association is to doctors. I have fond and harrowing memories of attending the MLA convention, as it's where English grad students go to hear from the stars in the field, but also where aspiring English professors go to interview. It's kind of a huge mess.

Anyway, one of the topics discussed at this year's convention was "selling the English major." I went into college as an International Relations major. I soon changed to English major because, in my first semester, I took a really difficult history class, found out I had to take Economics to be an IR major (and I didn't want to, which was a mistake in retrospect), and took an English class that was revelatory: it was fun, made me improve my writing quickly and markedly, and introduced me to writers whom I continue to this day to revere and return to, like Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence

When I became an English major, I didn't really think about what I would "do" with it: I just knew I liked reading and was good at writing about what I read. I know now that I was perhaps being foolish (or at least not forward-thinking) and benefited from the luxury of  having my college paid for by my parents, and thus not having to pay back student loans as soon as I graduated.

However, from my previous work with students and talking to students now, I do wish more students would consider a bit more how much they actually like their major, and not just how much they think they will earn from it. First, as one MLA attendee mentioned, "students who love their majors are more likely to succeed": if you hate what you're doing, you're not going to do well at it. Second, certainly some majors will go on to make more than other majors, but just having a degree will likely ensure you will make a good living; one enormous misconception students have is that employers care a lot about what you major in: they typically don't.

Regarding specifically the English major (and, really, other traditional liberal arts majors), it gives you three skills that will help you in any workplace. The first is the ability to communicate well, especially in writing. Every employer wants that. The second is the ability to think critically, which will put you in good stead for a future where jobs we can't even imagine will exist; a friend of mine is an "internal social media manager" for a major pharmaceutical firm--that job didn't exist three years ago. One professor

spoke of the need to constantly be talking with students and parents about the many paths for English majors. She said that means not only the student who goes on to become a published poet or to earn an M.F.A. (although she talks about them, too). It also means the insurance agent and real estate agent who use critical reading and thoughtful writing in their jobs. 

Finally, an English major will make you a better person; or, at least "research shows that those who read literature have more empathy for fellow humans than those who don't read." Will that show up in the statistics for highest salaries? No, but it will show up in the quality of life you will have, which has to be considered.

I'm really not saying that everyone should become an English major (though many more should!): what I am saying is that your choice of major is less important than doing well in school, learning about who you are and what you want to do, and gaining experience to show future employers that you are ready (and willing) to work hard. A certain major is not going to get you a job, just as an English major will not make it hard for you to get one.

As Virginia Woolf says, "Growing up is losing some illusions, in order to acquire others."