This week I attended a meeting of another industry advisory board for one of our vocationally-oriented programs. I’ve been attending those since my DeVry days, at four different colleges and in more programs than I can immediately remember. In every single case, without exception, the employers have had the same request:
“It’s the social skills, the interpersonal skills.”
It’s fashionable now to blame smartphones, and sure enough, some mimed the phone in front of the face with thumbs flying madly. But they said the same thing back in 2001, before smartphones were around. Phones in front of faces are symptoms, not causes.
Some of it is probably a variation on “kids today…,” a complaint as old as generations. Some of it probably reflects the uncertainty that many younger employees have as they take jobs they don’t love just because they need to take something. Looking back at the way I carried myself at some summer-temp jobs at that age, I can’t say I was any different. It’s easy to be engaged in a field you’ve chosen for yourself, especially after years of experience; when it’s something you’ve fallen into by default, and you aren’t really sure about the whole thing, that ambivalence can come across as indifference or even hostility.
Which suggests that some sort of intentional career exploration very early in the college process could pay off. If students get better at identifying what would work for them from the outset, they might be likelier to find their ways into jobs that they’d find engaging. That means something different for different students, which is as it should be.
I’m increasingly convinced that there’s a compelling argument for some sort of college success/career navigation course as a category within gen ed. It needs to be its own niche, complete with credits allocated to it.
Relegating courses like those to “elective” status limits enrollment, particularly among financial aid students. (That’s because financial aid doesn’t cover courses that aren’t required for the degree anymore.) And leaving them to orientation sessions and extracurricular workshops conveys a message that the skills they teach are relatively unimportant. They aren’t.
In olden times, college was the preserve of the sons of the upper classes. When that was true, it was easy to ignore certain social skills in the curriculum. (The daughters of the upper classes, by contrast, faced much tougher social demands and many fewer occupational options, so “finishing schools” took social roles as core curriculum.) Among male-dominated colleges, two major forms of curriculum emerged — “pure” and “impure,” or “theoretical” and “practical,” depending on your taste — but they shared a defining exclusion of manners and etiquette as serious topics of pedagogy or inquiry.
Contemporary community colleges inhabit a very different world. Most of our students are not from the upper classes; many struggle economically just to come to school. While manners have evolved over the years — knowing which fork to use is much less crucial than it once was — they haven’t gone away. And as employees and customers have become more diverse, certain kinds of workplace etiquette have become far more important. It’s harder to fall back on common understandings when people come from so many different backgrounds.
The cultural understanding by which the “soft” skills — a revealing term in itself — were taken for granted and excluded no longer holds, but we haven’t yet really compensated for the change. Employers — and everyone else, really — want to see students who can deal with difficult people, who can maintain poise under stress, and who can, frankly, fake enthusiasm when they need to. At the very least, they need to be able to engage productively at work.
But we’ve locked in academic categories that date back to that earlier time. As a result, students aren’t getting the training they need either in class or outside of it.
It’s time to rethink those categories.
As a card-carrying academic administrator, I have to take the long view. But I’ve been hearing the same complaint from different employers, in different states, for the last seventeen years. They can’t all be wrong.
I’d love to see us try some sort of career exploration/soft skills gen ed requirement for a while, and see if it helps. Yes, the interdepartmental warfare would be intimidating, as each area tries to protect “its” credits, but the students need it. Seems like it’s worth a shot…