April Kelly-Woessner

April Kelly-Woessner

Last month, Northeastern University and Gallup Research released a report titled “Facing the Future: U.S., U.K. and Canadian citizens call for a unified skills strategy for the AI age” (AI being artificial intelligence).

According to extensive surveys in all three countries, the public believes higher education is failing to meet the demands and expectations of a technologically changing workforce.

The skills required for a modern workforce, however, may surprise people. And unfortunately, many colleges and universities are actually shifting their focus from the skills students increasingly need to be successful after college.

The report says that in the United States, only 17% of Americans agree that colleges and universities do a good job preparing graduates for the current economy. The majority of respondents believe the technological skills provided through college degree programs will become outdated and that employment in the information age requires continuous retraining.

Yet while 95% of the public sees a need for lifelong learning and career development, only 34% would look to traditional college and university programs to provide this. The majority of respondents said they would look for employers to provide training and to pay for it.

If technological skills learned through college become obsolete as technology advances, what is the long-term value of a four-year college degree? The report hints at the answer, quoting a chief human resources officer who concludes, “The technical skills shelf life is shorter than what we’ve dealt with historically, but the human skills shelf life is just as long.”

Institutions of higher education have responded to the information age largely by building programs in technological fields. Indeed, more jobs require expertise in math, science, coding and data analysis. But the Northeastern University and Gallup report suggests this shift toward STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — programs and hard skill training may be short-sighted. While basic training in these areas may be required for entry-level positions, these are also the skills that workers are most likely to further develop on the job as technological advances require.

As universities shift resources toward in-demand STEM programs, they often do so at the expense of traditional liberal arts programs. Yet half of Americans and the majority of Brits and Canadians say soft skills in teamwork, communication, creativity and critical thinking are actually more important in insulating workers from job loss caused by artificial intelligence. Computers can do math and data analysis more easily than they can do creativity, conflict resolution and team-building.

Americans’ perceptions of future job demands seem to match those of employers. In surveys, employers are increasingly likely to identify soft skills as both essential and lacking among new workers. For example, a survey of 500 hiring managers and 150 human resources professionals conducted last September by Morning Consult on behalf of Cengage, an education and technology company, showed a demand among employers for soft skills.

Employers rated listening skills, attention to detail, critical thinking and effective communication as high priorities. They also reported that college graduates lack these skills. These soft skills are not easily replicated by computers, meaning the jobs that require these skills and the people who have them are less likely to be replaced by technology. Pointedly, the report is titled “Robots Need Not Apply: Uniquely Human Skills for the Workforce.”

This doesn’t mean college students are going to demand new majors in soft skills (although maybe they should). It does mean, however, that engineering students who minor in philosophy or English will probably be better employees than those who stick solely to STEM training. And because college students often don’t know what skills are needed as they move into the workforce, colleges and universities have an obligation to develop soft skills by incorporating them into the required curriculum.

Ironically, pressures on modern universities to train people for a highly technological workplace appear to be missing the mark and moving in the wrong direction. Preparing graduates for rapidly changing careers doesn’t just require more technological training. It also requires more training in logic, creativity, communication and teamwork. College graduates who can demonstrate their skills in conflict resolution, ethical reasoning and cross-cultural understanding will be prized among a sea of candidates (and robots) with impressive technical skills.

Members of Generation Z are not lacking in their comfort with, and adaptability to, new technologies. But they are lacking in their comfort with, and adaptability to, new people, different ways of thinking and interpersonal relationships. These skills are not learned online or on the job. They are learned in the liberal arts.

April Kelly-Woessner is a professor and chairwoman of the political science department at Elizabethtown College. She also is a correspondent for LNP. Email: woessnerak@etown.edu.