Gone are the days when a Bachelor or Masters degree would act as a passport to a dream job for a young man or woman. Nowadays, employers want more from employees, particularly those that qualify as graduates. What they want are individuals who possess a good amount of ‘soft skills’. Whar are these soft skills? They are aspects of your personality that are coming to the forefront as professional assets - problem solving, teamwork and adaptability to change. The turht is, we have transitioned to a society where it is important to have knowledge but also critical to have the skills to deal with people, find solutions to problems and be adaptable in a world that is shrinking rapidly to meld more multiculturism at the work place. According to Debbie Hance of the Association of british psychologists, “There’s a saying that hard skills will enable you to perform well in academia and in interviews, but it’s soft skills that get you the job.”
So, what are ‘soft skills’ and how might they be useful among the student population?
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A cluster of personal qualities
Soft skills refer to a cluster of personal qualities, habits, attitudes that have the potential to make someone a good student and compatible with the requirements of academia. Put simply, they are the ways in which you talk, you move around, listen and present yourself. They are learned behaviours, which develop as a result of ones willingness and commitment to understanding the emotions of oneself and others. Emotional Intelligence is another term used in reference to soft skills. Students who possess such skills are more adept and academic savvy. They are able to gain a further understanding of tasks and successfully engage with them, enabling them to gain more control over their learning. As well as playing an important role in the development of students’ overall personality and performance, soft skills also amount to good skills in communication; presenting information in a clear and concise manner; team-building ability; leadership; time management; group discussions; and interviews and interpersonal skills. All of which are important for students’ academic development and growth.
Why is emotional richness an asset?
Because it allows us to engae with people in a more meaningful way.
Soft skills are representative of how emotionally intelligent and engaged we are. It is very difficult to separate the two, therefore, it is inevitable to expect there to be some interaction between soft skills and emotions, particularly in the case of learning. For example, how students’ learn and comprehend information goes beyond the standard ability to revise and regurgitate factual information.
Learning is an emotional experience – what students retain from being academically exposed is very much influenced by past experiences of learning. Depending on the nature and content of these memories, new learning can cause individuals to experience spells of sadness as well as happiness. Equally, emotions can also impact students’ approach and motivation to learn. Notice how when a student is undergoing personal difficulty, they show signs of distractibility, or may lack the ability to focus and stay on task. Much of this can be explained by the engineering behind important cognitive processes.
‘Cognition’ defines “the way in which we make sense of our environment, and process the information around us” (Eysenck, 2009). Learning, as one would imagine, expends a great deal of cognitive effort. However, cognitive effort is not fixed and fully functionally at all times – it is subject to changing circumstances. When we are feeling emotionally challenged, this interferes with our ability to process and comprehend information. For these reasons, it is important for teachers to create a positive, emotionally safe learning environment to provide for optimal opportunities to learn. Learning how to manage feelings and relationships constitutes as emotional intelligence (a soft skill) that paves the way for academic growth.
How soft skills complement hard skills
Traditionally, hard skills were regarded as being the most important ingredient of academic success. Hard skills are academic skills, experience, and ones level of expertise.
Research suggests that hard skills contribute a mere 15% to one’s skill success, compared to 85% that comprises soft skills. It is at this point where ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills meet. Hard skills are often associated with general intelligence – there is an element to them that is fixed and consistent throughout a students’ academic history. However, the same cannot be said in the case of soft skills – they are flexible and can be developed through commitment and systematic practice. Up until recently, soft skills were almost unheard of, and for many they were deemed as unimportant, particularly in terms of their use in academia. However, today, the student experience is richer and more varied than it has ever been. This is a reflection of the skills set that employers are searching for in employees to ensure their commercial survival in a ever changing and global world – it is the search for the right candidate, with the right skills, who is available at the right time!
Employers want to select, retain and promote individuals who are dependable, resourceful, ethical and good communicators who are willing to work. Soft skills help to increase this and employability per se, which assists employees in their efforts to face the many challenges of the current time and climate (CIPD, 2012). Ideally, it is a combination of soft and hard skills that helps individuals to develop and maintain sustainable careers. The 21st century alone has borne witness to a change in how soft skills are valued and perceived.
Despite the difference between soft, and hard skills, the purpose of this article is not to narrow one’s focus to distinguishing between these two skills, nor is it an aim to portray one as being more desirable than the other. Both are important for academic success! What is of importance, however, is to know how these two skills interact and serve to compliment each other, and how this would benefit students’. For example, hard skills will help you to write well and construct well-founded and objective arguments; soft skills will equip you with, say the social skills and confidence to communicate your point across. Essentially. employers want candidates who comprise a combination of both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills.
What are the benefits of developing ‘soft skills’?
Soft skills are important for fine tuning the student’s attitude to learning, motives, values… and deal with different situations responsibly and diligently. Emotional intelligence and soft skills strengthen students from within, which makes them a good predictor of academic success.
These skills empower them to understand who they are and how best they can come across as competent individuals in any given situation. Because studying and gaining qualifications is often embarked upon to enhance employment prospects, it Is inevitable that employers will factor this into their criteria when selecting suitable candidates. Thus, the skills that students are exposed to and expected to practice in academia should be representative of, and fulfil the requirements of the business world.
Baddeley, Alan, Eysenck, Michael W, Anderson, Michael C. (2009)Memory. Memory. New York, NY, US: Psychology Press: US.
Eysenck, Michael W. (2009) Fundamentals of psychology. Fundamentals of psychology. New York, NY, US: Psychology Press: US.
Goleman (2004) Daniel Goleman, co-author of “Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence”
Tyson, S. (2006) Essentials of human resource management. 5th ed. Oxford: Butterworth Heinemann.
(Michelle Hunter - Lecturer & Business Psychologist at Heriot-Watt University (Dubai Campus).
Importance rating for success 15%
Importance rating for success: 85%
Attitude to learning
How can soft skills be acquired?
1) Discover more about your personality, strengths and weaknesses and commit to creating a plan of action to address them.
2) Practice presenting yourself – your appearance and personality are as important as are your knowledge about theories and concepts.
3) Practice active listening, paraphrasing – pay attention to the rules of conversation; take notes to aid your understanding.
4) Think big and practice your creative and innovation skills.
5) Improving awareness skills – reading and comprehending information.
6) Remain positive – try to learn something from every experience.
Characteristics of soft-skilled individuals
1) Strong work ethic.
2) Positive attitude.
3) Good communication skills.
4) Time management skills.
5) Problem solving skills.
6) Acting as a team player.
7) Self confidence.
8) Ability to accept and learn from criticism.
9) Flexibility and adaptability.
10) Working well under pressure.