The Growing Importance of "Soft Skills"

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During much of my teaching career, I met students who were certain that the “hard” courses in STEM were the ones that would help them to get—and to keep—good jobs. And I watched enrollment in STEM courses swell as those in the humanities shrank, it seemed, more and more each year.


A recent conversation with a former student (Mark, who earned master’s degrees in computer science and poetry) suggests that this perception may no longer hold. In a thoughtful and free-wheeling message, he described his experience working in Silicon Valley’s social media world. Companies today, he says, are increasingly “places of learning.”

Companies want to keep engineers 2-3 years at least. But skilled engineers can easily jump from company to company as often as every 18 months. When asked what would make them stay, engineers tell us they want to "learn interesting things" from their work (i.e. mastery). As a result, companies are responding by becoming like universities. . . . Since companies can't create new jobs (with new work) fast enough to keep engineers interested, they are instead creating new "experiences" that can be accessed while keeping your existing job. A new experience might mean moving to another team, working with multiple teams, or working on a special initiative. This is putting a lot of pressure on managers to be creative about coming up with new "blocks" that make up the path of an employee journey. Specifically, employees now are being treated like student-customers. Managers are being asked to "teach a personalized curriculum" and "coach" rather than "manage to a number." And the kind of "teaching" that engineers want most is in "soft skills" like communication, teambuilding, and persuasion. The reason engineers want this training is because they can't truly progress in their careers or become managers without it. Engineers are essentially asking for training in rhetoric (just by other names). I never thought I'd see the day ; ).


And neither did I, though this message makes me think back on Richard Young’s long association with the engineering faculty at Michigan (I think) before he moved to Carnegie Mellon, and indeed of the work that the rhetoric group at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute did with engineers at IBM, and a number of other examples.


Of course, folks in our field have argued for decades that rhetoric should be at the heart of the entire undergraduate curriculum, precisely because it offers systematic ways to analyze and understand any situation as well as ways to act ethically and effectively within that situation. These abilities seem not just important but absolutely crucial as we move further into the promise and peril of artificial intelligence.


Mark goes on to say that in the corporate work world today, businesses are “half way between being hierarchies and being team driven.” Thus, “intersections of conflict” are rife and, again, it’s “soft skills” that can help negotiate these conflicts. He concludes:

The take-home message here is that soft skills are suddenly very much in vogue in corporate America. And this time, it's not just that soft skills are needed on an individual basis--but also that companies want to institutionalize soft skills. That is, they want a culture of soft skills like team-led (non-hierarchical) work, collaboration, and bottoms-up strategy. And that's forcing managers to seriously retrain and for old rewards structures to be torn down and replaced. I can't help but be a bit amused by all this. When I graduated in 2005, I was told by many a corporate recruiter that my "soft skills" were useless. Now, just over a decade later, I'm being told soft skills are almost the only thing that matters ; ). 


Mark’s experiences and his reflections on them seem pretty important to teachers of writing and rhetoric. First, they suggest that strong first- and second-year writing courses, with a focus on rhetoric and embodied action, should remain central to the college curriculum, since they introduce and help hone “soft skills” along with analytic abilities. In addition, these comments suggest, to me at least, that the move to make writing courses into distinctly discipline-specific writing courses may not serve students particularly well in the long run.


I expect many of you who are reading this are also in touch with former students. I wonder what they are telling you about what they’ve learned since graduating and entering the workforce. I wonder how many of them are, like the engineers Mark mentions, “asking for training in rhetoric.” Just thinking out loud here!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 3192205 by rawpixel, used under the Pixabay License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.