What do our students need to succeed in the world of work?

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How can we prepare our children for life after graduation? What skills are the most important, and how can we foster them in students? As our economy changes to become more tech-driven, what do students need to be ready to take on a 21st century economy? (Hint: it’s not necessarily the number of STEM courses on a student’s transcript!)

According to employers, 21st century skills like critical thinking and communication are among the top characteristics they look for in prospective employees. Executives from top tech companies like Google and IBM, and even the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, have said that these “soft-skills” are essential in the workplace–bypassing even “hard” STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills:

All across America, students are anxiously finishing their “What I Want To Be …” college application essays, advised to focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) by pundits and parents who insist that’s the only way to become workforce ready. But two recent studies of workplace success contradict the conventional wisdom about “hard skills.” Surprisingly, this research comes from the company most identified with the STEM-only approach: Google.

>Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both brilliant computer scientists, founded their company on the conviction that only technologists can understand technology. Google originally set its hiring algorithms to sort for computer science students with top grades from elite science universities.

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different 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…

Google’s studies concur with others trying to understand the secret of a great future employee. A recent survey of 260 employers by the nonprofit National Association of Colleges and Employers, which includes both small firms and behemoths like Chevron and IBM, also ranks communication skills in the top three most-sought after qualities by job recruiters. They prize both an ability to communicate with one’s workers and an aptitude for conveying the company’s product and mission outside the organization.

STEM skills are vital to the world we live in today, but technology alone, as Steve Jobs famously insisted, is not enough. We desperately need the expertise of those who are educated to the human, cultural, and social as well as the computational.

According to a new survey from McGraw Hill Education, both students and employers feel as though graduates aren’t prepared in essential career readiness skills like professionalism, critical thinking, and communication:

Whereby over half of college graduates surveyed believed they were well prepared for the workplace in “essential career readiness skills” like professionalism and work ethic (77%), critical thinking and problem solving (63%), and oral and written communication (61%), employers’ perception of career readiness was lower, namely (43%) for professionalism, (56%) for critical thinking and (42%) for communication. That’s divided thinking. Technical skills don’t seem to be a big issue for either students or employers. Interpersonal skills are. Only in teamwork and collaboration did college grads (73%) and employers (77%) see eye-to-eye.

But, we can prepare our children and give them the tools they need to succeed, even before high school graduation, through real-world experiences that help hone these essential skills:

Nick Corcodilos (CEO, Ask The Headhunter) observes, “By being exposed to the workplace early, whether by internship, apprenticeship, volunteer opportunities or authentic assessment, young adults develop a clear sense of expectations and increased confidence. Experience speaks volumes.” Along these lines, just over half of all students surveyed by MHE believed professional experience and internships would better prepare them for the workforce. Adding fuel to this fire, in the MHE survey, nontraditional students (those who did not enter college within a year of high school) were more likely to feel prepared for the workforce than traditional students, 49% to 34%. A pretty big difference.

The focus of the survey was on college-bound students and graduates, but New Hampshire’s schools are working to ensure that all students are prepared for life after graduation–whether that leads to college, career, or civic life.

Project-based learning and competency assessments like New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE) are equipping our students with these essential soft-skills. Not only do students retain more content knowledge with these approaches, but they acquire the critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration skills than the traditional teacher-led strategies.

In the higher grades, real-world experiences like apprenticeships and extended learning opportunities allow students to following their passions, explore career opportunities, and gain professional experience even before high school graduation.

Interested in whether your child’s school is preparing students for a 21st century economy? Start a conversation with your child’s teacher to find out whether they use project-based learning approaches in the classroom. If your child is interested in pursuing an extended learning opportunity or apprenticeship this year, contact your school’s ELO coordinator or your school board to see what opportunities are available and what your student needs to do to create an ELO.

Read more on 21st Century Skills:

Source: Hiring Is On The Rise, But Are College Grads Prepared For The World Of Work?, Forbes & The surprising thing Google learned about its employees — and what it means for today’s students, Washington Post