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.