Preparing Students for Life Using Soft Skills

Success in the workplace takes more than just a set of technical skills. What liberal arts educators have long known is that it matters just as much to possess a wide range of knowledge across disciplines, and the practical ability to apply that knowledge to new and challenging situations.

Preparation for workforce and life depends on what many people refer to as “soft skills.” These include thinking critically, handling the many ambiguous situations that are common in the work world, being adaptable, tolerant of diversity, and similar abilities. Many employers believe that these are lacking in university graduates they hire.  In contrast, a common perception among millennials is that hard skills are more important than soft skills when it comes to finding jobs. Hard skills are measurable, concrete abilities such as typing, math, reading, and using software programs.

While hard skills are important in liberal arts training, soft skills are precisely those that liberal arts programs teach well; they are part of the regular course offerings at LEAP Institute for the Arts, a special academic unit at Colorado State University, which offers a master of arts in leadership and cultural management degree, and a minor in arts administration. According to LEAP graduate student Jen Zidon, “These are skills that I use everyday at my job. Learning how to use those skills better is an advantage for my career.”

Providing experience outside of the classroom was the aim of Soft Skills for Professionals, a series of workshops offered by the LEAP Institute in April 2017. Open to students of all disciplines, it was an opportunity to gain practice in critical observation, problem solving, adaptability, and other soft skills through exercises designed to challenge students’ abilities and to put their learning into action.

In one workshop Dr. Ray Black, an assistant professor in Ethnic Studies, intentionally heightened students’ confusion and discomfort to challenge their beliefs about tolerance and diversity. According to Black, “People need to recognize that their own behaviors may make others feel out of place.” Questioning one’s confidence is beneficial in Black’s view. It helps “develop a sense of respect for others.” The workshop also addressed students’ tendencies to remain silent rather than admit they don’t understand a task. Cindy Conlin, a workshop participant stated, “I understood that it’s normal to feel uncomfortable sometimes. It doesn’t need to produce embarrassment.” She added, “If I feel uncomfortable, I can ask questions. I don’t have to be silent.”

Zach Mercurio, a Ph.D. candidate in education, led a workshop that asked participants to question common ways of problem solving. According to Mercurio, many people believe that complex problems are best solved on one’s own, without input from others. To challenge this, he gave students a seemingly simple task—draw the steps for making toast so someone who had never made it before could understand. After this task, students did the exercise again, but in groups. Working in groups increased the explanatory power of their diagrams. The same methods can be used to tackle bigger, real-life problems, according to Mercurio. “The exercise provides a visual way to go about solving more complex problems to make them easier,” he said. “For anyone who has to face abstract problems, this is very useful.”

Chloe Leisure, former poet laureate of Fort Collins, engaged students in critical observation, a skill that Harvard Business Review touts as “critical to management” (October 2013). “The ability to really notice something that isn’t obvious makes you a better critical thinker,” said Leisure. Her workshop took students outdoors for up-close nature observations that used all five senses. Leisure asked students to think about how the same skills could be used in everyday work and life.

Bohemain Foundation Music Manger, Dr. Bryce Merrill, contributed his expertise to teach about adaptability. Students were asked to pitch solutions to high-cost housing in Fort Collins that preserved its creative character while providing affordability for artists. The exercise was simply the jumping off point, however, to illustrate that many of us go about problem-solving with self-imposed limitations. While students embraced the activity in group discussions, none of them considered using other available tools. Merrill observed that none of the students went online to find existing solutions, and none asked him for additional information. “I didn’t tell you it wasn’t allowed,” he told the students, “but that didn’t mean you couldn’t do it.” According to Merrill, “being adaptable isn’t just about flexibility to on-the-job demands.” It includes knowing what resources are available to you beyond the most obvious, and using them to the best advantage.

Merrill considers LEAP Institute for the Arts a valuable asset for students training for future careers. “Most arts management programs focus only on applied skills. They teach you how to use money, and how to apply for a grant, for example. But, increasingly, you need to understand theory, and think about soft skills. It can help you improve your professional thinking and increase professional opportunities.”

According to LEAP Institute Director Dr. Constance DeVereaux, “There is strong evidence that employers in all sectors prefer individuals who are well-rounded beyond hard skill training in a particular field.” The dynamic nature of today’s job market means that students have to learn more than just how to do one thing. “Soft skills training prepares students for life,” adds DeVereaux. “That’s a far better way to ensure they’ll have a career in the future.”


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