Money, meet mouth

As I mentioned in an earlier post, yet another round of reports – see this and that, for example, oh, and this, as well — has been released, in which the business community complains – yet again – that recent university graduates lack the “soft” skills business so desperately needs.

And this year, as in past years, I find myself thinking, “Hey, Business! What are you going to do about it?”

What do they mean by “soft” skills? In a nutshell, “soft” skills refer to those abilities related to communications (written and oral), critical and analytical thought, research abilities, and so forth.

In other words, business leaders think university graduates can’t read, write, or think well enough to serve the interests of business.

I don’t necessarily disagree. A cursory survey of degree requirements over the past few decades (which I actually did this summer) shows a gradual reduction in terms of what university students are expected to study over their four years.

Where once students were expected to take specific courses beyond their fields of interest (languages, for example, required of English students, or history and philosophy for business students), increasingly, students are left to their own devices in choosing electives, with only minimal restrictions (i.e. don’t devote all your electives to Economics).

And, not surprisingly, many students tend to prefer electives that produce maximum grades for minimum effort. Think multiple-choice exams instead of research essays.

Further, for students in those colleges associated with applied – or hard – skills, little attention is paid to matters like grammar, spelling, logic, analysis, critical thought, and, yes, even academic integrity, which might encourage them to develop soft skills. So, for example, a student completing a degree of 120 credits might very possibly have only six credits (two half-term classes) in which soft skills were the focus of development and evaluation.

And don’t get me started on their music.

But, on a more serious note, are students wholly to blame? What messages have they received about the skills valued by the business community? Does the business community give any indication to students that they should be developing those vital soft skills?

If we look for signs of where business perceives value in the university, in this case, in the form of corporate endowments, donations, and the like, we see little indication of any value attached to those scholarly areas associated with the development of soft skills.

Do we have an ACME Industry Chair in Philosophy? A Big Global Mining Company scholarship in English? Does International Corporate Concern set up recruitment booths in History? (Answer: no.)

In fact, for all that the business community talks about the importance of soft skills, one is hard pressed to find any sign of business investment in the departments associated with soft skills. Instead, we see a wealth (literally and figuratively) of industry investment in applied and social sciences, those areas that focus on the development of hard skills.

The implication – and often, the explicit message – of such reports is that universities are not doing their job in preparing students for the workplace. Yet, as has been observed elsewhere, business has largely shirked its own responsibilities for training and skills development.

So, not only is the business community not doing its job, but having interfered in the university’s pursuit of what it has traditionally done best, the business community is bemoaning the result.

If it is sincere in what it has repeatedly said about soft skills, it’s time for the business community to put its literal money where its figurative mouth is.


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