If you want to stay relevant in the workplace of the future, develop your soft skills.

Why Students Need These Skills to Thrive in the Future of Work

by Van Ton-Quinlivan

Certain workplace skills will not be easily automated — at least not initially.

If you want to stay relevant in the workplace of the future, develop your soft skills. These skills separate you from the robots and are harder for machines to replicate. Soft skills, also referred to as employability skills, power skills, or job-ready skills, include collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, communication, empathy, leadership, and an entrepreneurial mindset.

While attending a Stanford mediaX workshop on AI Culturally Relevant Interactions, I learned that context and culture matters when applying soft skills effectively. This is much too nuanced for the machines to master right now. For example, comments appropriate in one community could be inappropriate when the room has a mix of ethnicities or genders.

Many people fear that automation and artificial intelligence (AI) will take their jobs and they’ll no longer be relevant in the workforce. Although it’s true that machine learning and AI will change work and the workforce, the skills least likely to become automated are these soft skills. Students should keep this in mind as they decide what field of study to pursue and consider how they build competencies over their career.

Most people think that the biggest skill gap in the US is coding (an example of a technical skills), but according to LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, it’s soft skills.

And a study soon to be released from the Strada Institute for the Future of Work entitled Robot Ready: Preparing Students for the Future of Work with Human+ Skills concurs. Their study, produced by EMSI, concludes that these “human+” skills will be very much in demand and a way to future-proof one’s marketability.

But are current graduates coming out with these skills? Employers loudly say no. It didn’t matter whether the feedback was being given to bachelor or associate-level institutions. I heard the same feedback while in the private sector dealing with four-year institutions and in my current role at the California Community Colleges.

Yet, academic institutions still get stuck in the age-old debate on which is more valuable: the general/liberal arts education or career education. To me, it’s a false dichotomy.

The labor market needs both. Lawyers need to know the practice of law (technical skills) but also have the ability to work with clients (soft skill). Medical assistants, who are usually trained through certificates and associates degrees, need to know how to draw blood (technical skills) while attending to the needs of the patient (soft skill).

As Executive Vice Chancellor of Workforce and Digital Futures at California Community Colleges, I’ve made significant investments to equip students with soft skills.

Under the Doing What MATTERS for Jobs and the Economy framework, we incubated and scaled the New World of Work 21st Century Skills, a “Top 10” list of 21st century employability skills. Now at 60 colleges, the content is modularized for inclusion in degrees, certificates, and one-off workshops, and applicable across all programs of study — from digital media studies to advanced manufacturing. Students can earn digital badges upon demonstration of competencies that they can display to prospective employers. Prior to experiencing the curriculum, many students had no idea that soft skills mattered.

Our CCC Maker initiative is another investment to foster important soft skills. With the help of the California Council on Science & Technology through its report Promoting Engagement of the California Community Colleges with the Maker Space Movement, 24 community colleges have created ‘maker’ learning facilities characterized as interdisciplinary, participatory, peer-supported learning environments where people can design and invent among a community of other makers. I intentionally designed into each makerspace grant a requirement to source internships for students so that they can practice their soft skills in the makerspace and the workplace.

Apprenticeship is a third model we scaled. My team deployed a new program called the California Apprenticeship Initiative. This expanded the adoption of apprenticeships into areas beyond the construction trades, traditionally the heaviest user of the apprenticeship model. As an apprentice, you’re a worker first, who is paid while undergoing training, and a student second. In addition to the formal training, apprentices are mentored by a senior person who oversees their skill development, which includes soft and technical skills.

When my peers and I were growing up, extracurriculars and internships provided forums for us to develop soft skills. But, those were optional experiences and not everyone understood that they could or should seek them out. Knowing the future of work will place high value on soft skills, how can we think differently about intentionally developing and evolving those competencies in all students?