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Student Success

4 minute read

What Is Soft Skills Development & Why Is It Crucial For Career Readiness?

John Steele

John Steele

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At colleges and universities across the country, administrators, deans and provosts work each day to teach the skills students will need to be competitive in their chosen profession and beyond. From expert professors to hands-on lab assignments to world-expanding internship programs, students hone the skills required to continue their education or perform the jobs of tomorrow. 

But there are other kinds of skills that are often even more prized by employers and educational institutions alike. While every candidate needs to prove they can perform the duties the job requires, employers favor candidates who can showcase abilities beyond knowledge learned in a textbook. 

These are called soft skills, and understanding how to teach, evaluate and develop these skills can be critical for student career readiness. According to the Society of Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) 2021-22 State of the Workplace report, 77% of HR professionals said that improving employees’ soft skills was key to their organizations’ future plans. 

So what are soft skills and how can you commit to soft skill development on your campus? 

What Are Soft Skills? 

Soft skills go beyond what you learn in class. They mainly deal with your ability to thrive within a workplace and navigate relationships. Are you a leader? Can you show a knowledge and talent for navigating different cultures? Can you think critically and express alternative opinions without sacrificing teamwork? 

Teaching the "hard" skills should be a given--colleges and universities should be tracking and measuring their ability to translate the skills of a given concentration to their graduates. But more and more, schools are beginning to examine a broader skills toolkit they want their graduates to have--a toolkit that will make students attractive to that 77% of HR managers we mentioned above. 

But how do schools get started focusing on soft skills development? 

What Is A Competency Framework?

Every department or college within your university knows the skills their students need to graduate with. But when does a student go from skilled to competent? 

This is the question competency frameworks seek to answer. By going beyond a simple list of student deliverables, administrators can bundle soft and hard skills into competencies that showcase your institution's relationship to students, employers, alumni and the broader community.

Competency frameworks allow for connections and interrelationships between different skills and outline pathways across various levels of acquisition and accomplishments. They allow universities to showcase their unique approach to education and focus students around in-demand goals and pathways that will be valuable whether the student seeks employment, pursues an advanced degree, goes into public service, or becomes a business owner.

To learn more on how to build a competency framework at your university, check out this article we did with Dr. Audrey Murrell and our partners at AACSB. 

What Soft Skills Are Most Valuable?

Determining which soft skills to focus on can be a challenge, but there are a few tried and tested methods that our partners have focused on when creating their Suitable programs. Here are just a few of their methods and best practices to soft skill development. 

Use A Pre-Established Competency Framework

While the creation of any competency framework should come from a collaboration between different key stakeholders like faculty, staff, and student leaders, it can be hard to know where to begin. 

That's why groups like NACE (National Association of Colleges & Employers) have worked tirelessly to provide resources, research and pre-established rubrics and frameworks to get you started. 

NACE works with employers and college leaders to conduct surveys, perform complex research and analyze data from colleges across the country, in the hope of creating resources that lead to student success. 

The NACE career readiness competencies are updated every few years to ensure they remain relevant to the current job market and offer a great jumping off point for colleges and universities looking to focus on soft-skills development. 

The soft skills they've identified as being most valuable to employers are: 

  • Career & Self-Development
  • Communication
  • Critical Thinking
  • Equity & Inclusion
  • Leadership
  • Professionalism
  • Teamwork
  • Technology

Work With Employers

At the University of Pittsburgh's School of Business, they've created an employer network and periodically get the input of employers on the competencies and soft skills students most need when they come out of college. 

Here are the competencies Pitt Business has identified: 

  • Leadership Development
  • Career and Professional Development
  • Communication Skills
  • Cross-Functional Team Management
  • Personal Financial Literacy and Wellness
  • Global and Cultural Engagement
  • Pitt Engagement
  • Networking and Relationship Management
  • Business Acumen
  • Civic and Social Engagement

Learn From Alumni

Jeremy Podany, founder and CEO of the Career Leadership Collective, appeared at our annual conference Pathways 2020 (video 3) to review the results of a survey his group had conducted. The National Alumni Career Mobility Survey identified, among other things, a series of competencies that correspond with alumni-reported career mobility after graduation. 

Here are those competencies: 

  • Leadership
  • Career Management
  • Work Ethic / Professionalism

How To Track & Measure Soft Skills Development

Universities track and measure soft skills development in a variety of ways, many similar to how they track hard skill development. Some develop rubrics to identify what tasks need to exist at each level of skill development until mastery is reached. 

Developing these rubrics can be a challenge, especially when identifying and measuring progress outside of a traditional classroom setting. 

At Suitable, we specialize in tracking these soft skills, helping administrators seamlessly build scaffolding into their programs and measuring experiences outside the classroom--from study abroad experiences to internships. 

How Tracking Works

Using our admin portal, program leaders will create tasks, reflections, surveys and more--slates of activities designed to move students towards these soft skill competencies. Students can scan into events, write reflections, answer surveys and more all from the Suitable app. 

How Scaffolding Works

As administrators create tasks and activities within Suitable, they can assign each a competency or several competency areas, tie them to digital badges or achievements and even assign a level to each. This leveling allows tasks and activities to be mapped to competency areas but also track levels within them so that when employers view the student's co-curricular transcript, they'll see not only the competency areas in which they've achieved but how deep their achievement goes in each area. Check out our Student Development page to learn more about scaffolding achievements in higher ed.  

How Digital Achievements Work

Some schools prefer to separate competencies from soft skills, preferring instead to use achievement badges to help students showcase their progression towards things like leadership, critical thinking, diversity, equity and inclusion and more. 

When tasks or activities are created, they can be easily mapped to badges created in the Suitable Badge Creation Suite. To learn more, check out this product showcase on badge creation

To get started tracking and measuring soft skills development today, schedule a demo!

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John Steele

John Steele