There is a difference between what students are being taught and what employers are looking for in their new hires, according to Dr. Kate J. Cassidy, Director of Community Learning & Youth University. She presented her findings in the form of a policy brief at Brock back in February. The report concluded that employers in the Niagara region were looking for a combination of post-secondary credentials and “soft skills.”
While students are hard at work earning their degrees, employers want them to have gained more than just a degree. They want candidates to have gained “meaningful learning experiences” that they can apply in a concrete way to the job at hand. The brief states that employers expect potential hires to “be able to talk fluently about how their skills have been developed in various experiences, and to explain how these skills will transfer to success in the posted job.”
Over the course of about 11 months from 2015 to 2016, 44 individuals from 39 different organizations in the Niagara region were asked how they felt about the “career-readiness” of today’s graduates. They said that potential hires were unable to speak in a meaningful way about their soft skills and that acquiring a long list of accomplishments and experiences would not help by itself.
Cassidy’s brief said students can find ways to present their character and skill sets by looking critically at their school, employment and life experiences. Employers were not always necessarily looking for experience in related work, but instead for deep engagement and reflection on actual experiences.
What do employers mean by soft skills? Cassidy’s brief says that they are “the personal qualities that enable people to respond appropriately in a variety of situations. The term “soft” skills is often used to describe broad-reaching attributes such as resilience, cooperation, and communication.”
Soft skills can also be described as transferable life skills, cognitive skills, and essential skills. They are different from ‘hard’ skills in that they are transferable from one job field to another unlike the specific skills one learns in class.
“We need soft skills…the other things we need are technical skills, education, and the ability to move…but in the end if they don’t have the soft skills we won’t hire them…we will repost if we have to,” said one participant from the manufacturing sector. Another said it’s not just about having the skills themselves but also about having the ability to articulate those skills that employers are looking for.
Cassidy’s brief also addressed the idea of closing the ‘skills gap,’ and places the responsibility on four different areas: individuals, families, employers and schools. Individuals and families can help close the gap by learning more about soft skills and how they can be used. Families can encourage reflection in their children from a young age to help build a solid foundation for later in life. For employers, Cassidy writes that they should model the skills they’re looking for and encourage potential hires to gain them themselves. When it comes to schools, Cassidy says they have the opportunity to make a significant impact on soft skills for students.
“Soft skills are tested in experience, but reflection upon experience is where most learning occurs,” Cassidy wrote. Schools have the ability to integrate soft skill learning across subjects and encourage their development during extra-curricular activities.
In the end, a resume is just a list of skills. Once a candidate gets to the interview, they have the ability to set themselves apart by telling their own stories of learning experiences that they have reflected on. Doing this is what these Niagara employers say will get them the job.