In demand: Soft skills give grads edge in job market

Senior Lissa Leibson has been organizing events big and small since she was a teenager, so she jumped at the chance to serve as a director for Camp Carey, the business school’s outdoor getaway for incoming first-year students.

But planning and previous experience were no match for the unexpected: rain. Lots of it.

Leibson’s solution?

Shuffle the deck. Adapt to change. Make sure to communicate with others. And above all else, keep a positive attitude.

These “soft skills” helped the student leader make the very best of the soggy situation. After graduation, they will take her even further — into a competitive job market that values soft skills as much as it does hard skills.

“Being able to think on your feet and realize that the show must go on; this was a new challenge of just having to go with the flow,” says Leibson, a double major in supply chain management and business sustainability.

It is exactly the kind of challenge for which W. P. Carey School of Business is preparing students, emphasizing those critical soft skills — everything from teamwork to communication to problem-solving — that are increasingly important in the work world. Students are learning these lessons throughout their W. P. Carey experience, whether in the classroom, through a team project, or during an internship.

“It's important that students get employed, and they get employed yes, with degrees, but also with the appropriate skills,” says Kevin Burns, director of strategic initiatives at W. P. Carey’s Undergraduate Program Office. “This is how we eliminate the skills gap.”

Workforce ready

Helping students grow these soft skills is more important than ever, as employers are expressing concern about whether college grads are ready for the workforce. In fact, 17 percent of employers say academic institutions don’t make the grade when it comes to preparing students for roles needed within their organizations. That is according to a 2017 CareerBuilder survey, which also found the most in-demand majors among employers. Two of the top three are offered by W. P. Carey (business and computer information systems).

Employers say they want workers with a better mix of book learning and real-world learning, of technical skills, and skills gained from liberal arts.

Among the most vital skills for today’s worker:

  • People skills
  • Problem solving
  • Teamwork
  • Leadership
  • Oral and written communication
  • Creative thinking
  • Project management
  • Research and analysis

Leadership in particular tops the list of attributes that employers want to see on new college grads’ resumes, according to the Job Outlook 2016 Survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

In fact, more than 80 percent of employers surveyed said they zero in on evidence of leadership skills; almost as many want to see job candidates who have worked as part of a team.

What’s more, employers look for creativity, tactfulness, and outgoing personalities as much as they seek out technical skills such as computer savvy and organizational ability, the survey said.

Building soft skills

Enter students like Leibson.

She can easily tick off a long list of soft skills honed during college, everything from presenting in the classroom and building relationships with other student leaders to problem-solving at an internship.

Among the most important skills: Accountability, whether being responsible for hundreds of Camp Carey first-year students or organizing events with business fraternity members and “being able to pull something off bigger than myself,” she says.

At W. P. Carey, students like Leibson find a wide range of opportunities to acquire these much-needed soft skills and round out their academic experiences. Among the strategies and opportunities:

Design your future — A detailed skill production matrix breaks down personal skills, applied knowledge, workplace skills, and people skills that students will need as they graduate and set a course for the future. Under “Employability skills,” for instance, students need to hone personal skills such as integrity, initiative, dependability, and professionalism that will help them move into middle management-type jobs.

Internships — Undergraduates are encouraged to have at least one internship or practical experience by the time they graduate.

Skills roadmap — Students who have internships track the soft skills practiced on the job, capturing examples in 15 categories such as time management, interpersonal skills, adaptability, and showing initiative. This gives students an important roadmap as they talk with prospective employers about what they can bring to the job.

Corporate-applied projects — National and international companies partner with W. P. Carey on semester-long projects that help students build some of the skills they would develop at a traditional internship. Burns calls it, “internship in a box.”

Project-based learning — Last school year, nearly 4,000 W. P. Carey students were enrolled in 43 project-based classes across the business school’s undergraduate curriculum. The projects give students the chance to develop and practice soft skills.

Classroom — Courses such as WPC 301: Business Forum, will offer a continuous career path model for students throughout college, with set goals at each stage. For first-year students, one of the goals may be acquiring internship readiness skills through student activities; for juniors, a goal may be developing interview skills.

Success stories

Senior Shea Van Slyke completed her degree in supply chain management in three years and opted to follow another passion, pursuing an English literature degree in her senior year. This turned out to be a one-two punch in terms of honing soft skills.

In a procurement class, Van Slyke’s professor stressed the importance of being able to effectively communicate in the field of supply chain management. When she landed an internship, she saw how that played out in everything from writing emails to framing a presentation.

Beyond those written skills, she leaned on her natural curiosity to engage co-workers or suppliers, making quick connections and building rapport — efforts that paid off when tackling an issue or working in a team.

Van Slyke also discovered the real-world benefit of those many group presentations in the classroom. “They encourage it at W. P. Carey, and you don’t really understand why that’s so important. You think ‘Oh, another group presentation,” she says.

But after one particular presentation on the job, it clicked. “The feedback was, ‘Wow, it seemed easy, and you’re very poised,’” she recalls. “And I thought, well practice, it’s been practiced.

“On those larger stages where there might be leaders (in the audience), that can be a bit of a moment to shine,” she says. “And if you feel comfortable, that’s really key.”

Thanks to a range of opportunities, through class, student organizations, and internships, Van Slyke now has a full-time job waiting for her at Intel following graduation.

Life after college

It’s that kind of success story students — and their parents — want to see. They expect more after graduation than a degree. They expect a good job.

Increasingly, students are “putting a premium on the job-related benefits of going to college,” according to the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA.

A 2012 study at HERI showed that nearly 88 percent of incoming first-year students view college as the best route to getting a better job. That’s up from about 86 percent the previous year, and noticeably higher than roughly 68 percent in 1976.

Chief academic officers and provosts at colleges and universities appear to be in lock step with students. More than 80 percent say their institutions are putting a sharper focus on degree programs that help students get good jobs, a 2016 Gallup survey shows.

That focus includes a robust career services office on campus that prepares students for life outside of college, collaborative partnerships on campus such as project-based learning, mentorships, and internships, the survey says.

No matter a student’s path after graduation, whether into the job market or on to graduate school, success hinges on closing the skills gap, Burns says.

“Clearly, all of the possibilities are based on the acquisition of skills,” he says. “If they don’t have the skills, they end up in the 49.5 percent of college graduates who, according to the Federal Reserve Bank, are unemployed or underemployed.”

W. P. Carey junior Danny Cheng can check off plenty of soft skills thanks to on-campus opportunities as a board member of the Supply Chain Management Association (SCMA) and off-campus internships.

Through SCMA, Cheng is working with a mix of colleagues, including fellow students, peer board members, faculty, and industry professionals. Understanding relationship dynamics is key, he says. “Each person you work with has a unique personality and method of performing tasks.”

Working as a team is equally important, something he saw firsthand at an internship. “Most, if not all, successful companies function on a structure based on teams,” he says. “I had to consistently work cross-functionally and meet with co-workers in completely different functions. Learning how to efficiently collect information and work with others is crucial.”

Cheng expects those soft skills to pay off as he moves through the work world.

“When managers are looking to promote, they look for people who can handle themselves calmly and who can problem solve,” Cheng says. “The technical knowledge is important, but the ability to work with people and understand how people think is critical.”

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