Thursday, December 13, 2012


Certifying Soft Skills?

“Lose the do-rag.”

A dozen or so years ago, I actually had to say that to a student who was on his way to a job interview.  It simply hadn’t occurred to him that wearing a “do-rag” (a bandana over his hair) would be a problem.  (Now, faculty tell me, similar conversations occur with young women who favor bare midriffs.)

That didn’t happen at Williams.  There, most of the students arrived with the informal folkways of the professional class already at hand, and those who didn’t, picked them up quickly.  We knew that you didn’t go to an interview in a t-shirt, or unshaven.  We knew about the handshake, the small talk, and the rule about showing up 10 minutes early.  We didn’t necessarily know how to write resumes, but we knew that they existed, that they mattered, and that we could get help from career services.  

That’s because Admissions screened for a certain cultural capital.  Students who got in, by and large, had already figured out how to succeed in mainstream institutions.  The college could pretty much assume that between what students brought with them, and what they picked up from each other in four years of close quarters, they’d know what to do on job interviews and in professional workplaces.  Students who didn’t already have the basics simply didn’t get in.

In the community college world, it’s a mistake to take any of that for granted.

That’s why I’m sympathetic with Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College’s move to start grading, and certifying, “soft skills” in its students.  It has noticed what employers have been saying for years, and has decided to stop pretending that its students just pick up those skills by osmosis.

I’ve been to more than my share of employer advisory boards over the last dozen years, at three different colleges.  They’re remarkably consistent; every time, the feedback is that we’re doing well with the specific technical skills, but that many students arrive with serious gaps in communication, presentation, and general employee conduct.  

I’m not pining for the old “finishing school” model.  This isn’t about formal state dinners or pretending to be Thurston Howell the Third.  It’s about helping students understand that being on time matters, that deadlines matter, and that there are acceptable and unacceptable ways of communicating frustration in the workplace.  (Honestly, I know some professionals who could use some brushing up on that last one.)  None of those is entirely neutral, but that really doesn’t matter; the relevant comparison is to ignorance,  not to some imagined utopia.  If students want to be successful in professional workplaces, they need to know the rules of the game.  If they aren’t brought up learning those rules at home, then they need to be taught.  And what better activity for a college than teaching?

Besides, rules change.  Ways that men in the workplace were once licensed to behave towards women are no longer okay.  Dress codes are constantly evolving.  Electronic communication brings its own set of etiquette issues.  (Hint: beware the “reply all” button.)  The odd blend of surface egalitarianism and deep hierarchy that defines many workplaces can be a minefield if you don’t know how to read it.  Learning not only what the current rules are, but why they are, and how they change, can help a student adapt when the next big shakeup comes.  

Ignoring gaps in cultural capital is not egalitarian.  Fixing them is.  A-B Tech will have to give serious thought to how it defines and measures ‘soft skills’ if it’s going to offer formal certifications, but that’s okay.  It’s a task worth doing.  The students are worth it.

I actually really like this idea. It might seems a bit softball on the surface, but there's something genuinely beneficial in teaching these soft skills.

When I took an introductory international development course years ago, the prof talked about how everyone like to just gloss over the question of "What is development?" First year students asking that in the intro course would get the answer "Oh, that's a subtle, difficult question that you will get the answer to later in your academic career". Fourth year students asking that question in an honours seminar course would get the answer "Oh, that's a pretty trivial, straightforward question that should've been discussed in your intro course". People just sort of assume away an actual explanation, leaving the work to someone else.

There's a lot of things that are taken for granted in the professional world, mainly because teaching such things is either seen as below one's status or just mystifyingly complicated. It also opens folks up to possible ridicule. How well does a 50-something tenured professor understand today's interview etiquette? Just how bad are graduates when it comes to workplace knowledge? Taking a look at these answers can be startling.

Kudos to any school that actually takes the plunge and tries to help people learn some seriously useful life skills.
A colleague told me, a decade or so ago, that one of his students had arrived for an interview at the State Department wearing jeans and a t-shirt. He told the receptionist that he was there for an interview. She took one look at him and replied, "No, you aren't." He had no idea what had happened until he told my colleague, who explained it to him.

I think this is a great idea. It's about making codes of behavior open. That doesn't mean you can't challenge them, but first you have to know them. A lot of what I try to do in my teaching, from freshman to Ph.D. level, is demystification: explaining why things are done the way they are, and what expectations are in play. I don't always succeed, partly because it's hard to remember what needs demystification, but it's one of my goals. It works not only for self-presentation, but also for things like citation formats, source criticism, historiography, and the other things that we do. For that matter, I try to demystify my department's and the university's procedures for new colleagues, though in some cases I'm not sure I've completely penetrated the mysteries myself.
This is an excellent idea.

While I'm curious about the implementation (having attempted to teach some soft skills to a group of at-risk students I taught in grad school, without notable success), I think that even attempting to teach the skills will be useful because it will let the students know that these behavior codes exist.

Which is important, since I think a big issue with soft skills is that students don't even know that they should be doing anything differently: Brian's student didn't show up to the interview with an ill-fitting suit and a loud tie; it didn't occur to him that he should wear anything special at all.

The biggest issue I saw in trying to teach my students certain elements of classroom etiquette (i.e., take off your sunglasses in class) was that they were all packed together in a classroom with similar students taking the same classes, with attendance being mandatory - so they had no other students to model off of...and it was just like high school.

It also made me realize how effortless acquiring social capital could be in the right environment - when I ran into some a couple of years later, they had acquired appropriate student behaviors, apparently by osmosis. (As one would expect when submerging a small group of students in a much larger group of students who will apply pressure).

So I do think it's hard to teach soft skills without extensive modeling, but I think it is very worthwhile, even if the primary message from the class is: "You lack certain social skills which we will describe to you, but which you will really only learn by modeling once you have a job. So look for people to serve as models."

And then there is the reality that even students who have been exposed to correct workplace behavior are, at this age, immersed in youth/popular culture that values the peer group over the protocols of the adult world. And students from lower income backgrounds have the additional challenge of feeling that caving in to authority figures amounts to abandoning that peer group. And this caving is much, much harder for young men than for young women. So yes, I think that addressing these issues openly is a good idea -- and making it fun or entertaining allows you to take some of the edge off of the experience.
Colleges are pretty much middle-class institutions with middle-class rules of behavior. When teachers get really exasperated with students, it's been my experience that it's usually because of cultural or class differences.

Working-class students need to know about these differences. Of course, they also need to hear that one set of rules is merely different--not better--than another.

And I can't help but add that it's too bad that we can't find a way to teach more privileged upper-middle class kids that they're not the center of the damn universe.

I don't think that sumptuary laws are really our business in cc--sometimes they are simply an excuse for petty classroom tyrannies and a flashback for students of some jerkass high school teacher.

Even more to the point, nearly every one of my students is already holding down one or two jobs and is no stranger at all to what we used to call in Job Corps The World Of Work.

My experience with advisory boards is that they say the things they think they are supposed to say and between meetings never give a thought to the stuff they claim is so important.

For example, I've often been told communication skills are vital, but when I ask what that actually means, I hear 'good punctuation and spelling,' which is not an answer anyone has put much thought into.
Lose the do-rag is fine general advice, but circumstances alter cases, and that might be the wrong advice for some interviews.

For a job interview at Hollister, for example, where many of my students fold clothes in the dimness, equally good advice might be 'wear brown flipflops.' That answer is probably not going to get a high grade in a Soft Skills 101 test, but it's the right footwear for the interview.
This sort of thing has been done at some HBCUs, driven by faculty but reinforced by upper-division peers.
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