Today’s students are taught how to master technical skills from an early age. STEM learning is part of the curriculum at primary schools across Australia, and children as young as eight can attend coding camps. But this strong focus on hard skills has resulted in a soft skills lag. Somewhere along the road to technology revolution, skills such as communication and leadership took a backseat.

The rise of digitisation, automation and artificial intelligence underscored the critical nature of hard skills, meaning skills such as computer programming, web design and mathematics nabbed pole position in the minds of students, employers and even educators.

Lack of soft skills

Now there’s a renewed attention on the lack of soft skills in the employment market.

These skills – the ability to communicate well, to work as a team and to learn from feedback – cannot be overlooked, underestimated or hurriedly learnt on the fly, said RMIT Master of Information Technology graduate Katrine Ren.

“If I miss some hard skill, I can learn from the books, from the course, from a lot of resources … there are open-source communities, but soft skills … we have to practise and we have to be trained properly,” she said.

Smooth communication

Ren, who worked as a data analyst in China before studying at RMIT, polished communication skills and the ability to be open-minded are essential in any technical role.

“I think communication is still the top skill – the most important skill,” she said.

“For example, in a team project I did about big data, there were a lot of steps in the whole procedure like data processing, data transforming, and data analysing.

“Everyone in the team picked up a role and we then did our individual work, but we still needed to collaborate. Our work is not isolated – as a matter of fact, we need to know what others are doing and sometimes my work depends on what other people’s work is. So, it's quite important for us to have smooth communication.

“I think being open-minded is another very significant ability or skill for a technical student because sometimes we'll receive a lot of feedback from others – from our peers, from teachers – and it's kind of human nature to defend ourselves when we hear different voices.

“So it's really important to handle this feedback properly.”

An internal review by Google revealed soft skills were the biggest indicator of success. By analysing their exit interviews, recruitment strategy and promotional data, the review found STEM skills were ranked last in the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees.

Making connections across complex ideas

The top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach, communicating and listening well, possessing insights into other values and points of view, having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues, being a good critical thinker and problem-solver, and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

Such is the critical need, employers are prioritising job candidates with soft skills, said RMIT Associate Professor Lawrence Cavedon, Associate Dean, Computer Science and IT.

“We've been talking to lot of employers and getting feedback on the sort of skills that we need to really equip our students with, and, increasingly, the message we're getting is that, of course specialised technical knowledge is really valuable, but we'll take a person with really good soft skills first,” he said.

“So the best thing we can do as educators is get students lots of practise in these sorts of areas and that's what we try to design in our coursework, especially for the Master of Information Technology, to incorporate a lot of these types of non-technical skills into their practise because they are so important.”

 

Story: Kate Jones

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