Soft Skills = My Midges

The following is a message from Summit Education Initiative Executive Director Derran Wimer. It appears in the May 2017 “Align & Engage” enewsletter.

Back in 2007, the Cleveland Indians played the New York Yankees in a home game with an outcome supposedly determined by invading swarms of midges. These midges – a group of insects including many kinds of (annoying) flies – affected the New York pitchers to a much greater degree than the Cleveland pitchers. Cleveland, whose players have long been acquainted with their winged visitors from Lake Erie, won the game, but the midges were the lead story.

What does this have to do with Summit Education Initiative? Sometimes I feel like those New York pitchers when people bring up emerging employees’ lack of “soft skills.” I keep swatting away, but it keeps coming back. The lack of soft skills, relentlessly swarming around me… everywhere I go!

Akron Public Schools middle school students

Photo: Akron Public Schools

This issue has troubled business leaders for at least the last 25 years I have served leadership roles in education. The mantra has remained the same… “too many candidates do not have soft skills.” A whole generation, now in the employee work pool, has lacked the necessary soft skills to be successful in the workplace. 

At several meetings I had asked business leaders if any of their Human Resources leaders had ever requested high school transcripts from interviewees. (I knew the answer because I used to sign them when they were released.) The answer: No one asked for them. A high school transcript can tell you a great deal about a graduate, but no one asks. 

Even in my role here at SEI, I hear about this vexing issue and somehow I feel responsible to help “fix” it. The problem is that soft skills are hard-wired in children from a very young age. Children learn from watching and modeling. They see adults in their lives who lack executive skills to civilly resolve problems; who are not prompt or timely with their commitments; who behave with little integrity; and who freely use offensive language. Then, we ask the schools to undo that learning, teach new paradigms, model correct “school and workplace” behaviors, and then somehow validate that a high school graduate possesses soft skills. 

Schools didn’t suddenly quit teaching soft skills 25 years ago. Students are still expected to show up every day, be on time, behave in a courteous manner, resolve conflicts appropriately, not do drugs and adhere to a dress code (admittedly more relaxed, but so is the workplace code). 

“Schools need to teach soft skills!” It just doesn’t work like that. Soft skills are reinforced by schools and other institutions (after school programs, sports, faith-based organizations, etc.). Certainly, schools can always do a better job. But I believe this is one solution that does NOT start with the schools. Requiring a soft skills class is not the answer. The answer starts by expecting adults to use and model these soft skills, especially because the students are watching.