• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Employability and Promotability

Skills for careers.


October 10, 2017

Monday’s IHE had a couple of articles dealing with questions of employability of graduates, and the constant curricular tension between specific technical skills and -- to use a term I don’t like -- “soft” skills. Many of the comments revolved around conflicting beliefs about what employers want.

I think we’re asking the question too broadly. Instead, it’s probably helpful to distinguish between the skills that get someone in the door and the skills that get them promoted.

Part of the confusion comes from asking different people the same question. If you ask CEO’s what they want, you tend to get a lot of references to soft skills. That makes sense; they’re looking at their best people, and at what sets them apart from the rest. But actual hiring managers on the ground hire to solve more immediate problems. That tends to mean more focus on training that will solve the problem that’s right in front of them.  If the employee also happens to have the soft skills, that’s great, and it bodes well for longevity, but it’s not what they’re looking for in the moment.  

That’s why liberal arts graduates often take longer to get the first “real” job, but tend to climb faster than their technical counterparts. They can’t get in the door as easily, but once they do, they’re well equipped to move up. Their communication skills and tolerance for ambiguity serve them well.  The trick is getting that first job.

My brother lived that story. He was a history and religion major in college, so the first couple of years afterwards were a bumpy ride, economically.  But it was the 90’s, and employers were desperate enough for techies that some of them even recruited liberal arts grads for training. He got enough training to get his foot in the door at a decent-sized company. Soon, his communication and diplomacy skills drew attention, and he started moving up.  He just needed that one break.  Since then, he has been able to ride the various booms and busts of the industry due mostly to being able to work with people at a level uncommon in his field.

The problem with the soft skills -- seriously, I need a better term than that -- is that they take a while to show. They aren’t as obvious as, say, a portfolio of artwork or a technical certification.  Interviews are notoriously unreliable venues for judging communication skills, and they’re even worse for judging patience, diplomacy, and the tolerance for ambiguity. Those show over time. To make matters worse, at the entry level, they tend to fall under “nice to have,” rather than “necessary.” They become necessary, but not right away.

Internships can help with that, since they give students an extended period to show who they are. It’s one thing to bluff your way through a half-hour interview, but something else entirely to do it for months on end.  The intern who manages the difficult boss well, and who figures out issues before they become obvious, is the intern who gets the job offer.  This is why I’m a fan of scholarships to help students with financial need take otherwise unpaid internships. They need the same chance to show the subtler skills that their wealthier colleagues get.

Of course, simply getting a degree in English or history is no guarantee of working well with others. (Make obligatory “department meeting” joke here…) But having a well-informed sense of the ways that people don’t behave, or that things don’t happen, can help you make choices that are likely to work. And the liberal arts are terrific for that.

In the meantime, honestly, is there a better term that soft skills? Because refining them at a high level is really hard...


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