The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Forget coding. It’s the soft skills, stupid. And that’s what schools should be teaching.

(Mark Felix/AP Photo/The Orange County Register)

In the movie “The Graduate,” the young character played by Dustin Hoffman is given a simple piece of job advice from his father’s friend in a line that has become one of the movie’s most iconic: There’s a great future in plastics. As this year’s college graduates hit the job market, the modern equivalent of that line might be software programming or artificial intelligence, or anything to do with the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math).

While software development skills are still desired by employers, a skill far more in demand is the ability to communicate. When LinkedIn analyzed the skills of its members in 100 metropolitan areas and the skills required for the jobs available in those places, the professional networking site found a shortage of 1.4 million people with communications skills compared with a deficit of 472,000 with software development skills.

As everyone who hires has been saying for years: It’s the soft skills, stupid. Perhaps we need a better term to describe how people get along with one another, communicate and work in teams, but those soft skills are much more in demand these days by employers than any technical skills.

That employers need to even ask for soft skills indicates an underlying anxiety many recruiters have expressed in survey after survey about the job readiness of college graduates. While a college degree may be the strongest signal that someone is ready, it’s become increasingly less reliable than it once was, in part because it doesn’t indicate that students know the soft skills. The degree mostly indicates they had the discipline to finish a task.

The U.S. education system — especially beginning in middle and high schools when teaching to the test tends to crowd out the project-based and play-based learning of elementary schools — rarely emphasizes development of the soft skills.

That was the message LinkedIn’s CEO, Jeff Weiner, delivered in Washington this month to highlight data from what the company calls its economic graph — a digital representation of the global economy using data from member profiles and job advertisements. Weiner urged K-12 and higher education to focus on four core skills: critical reasoning, creative problem solving, collaboration and basic digital fluency.

Weiner’s list of skills was similar to what I heard often from hiring managers in reporting my most recent book. The problem is that not only does the development of soft skills take a back seat to technical skills in schools, but we also tend to conflate basic digital fluency with learning how to write computer code.

Sure, every job now is a tech job but that doesn’t mean everyone needs to write code. The generation entering college and the workforce is often referred to as “digital natives” because they were raised on technology from a young age. But their relationship has been largely passive: switch on the device and use it. Being digitally fluent isn’t about turning more people into computer geeks. It’s about moving from a passive relationship with technology to a more active one — especially in understanding the how and why behind machines, not just the what.

For Weiner, digital fluency means proficiency in designing presentations, manipulating spreadsheets and navigating social media. In an economy in which digital competencies needed to keep up in almost any job are increasingly churning at a faster rate, if you are digitally fluent, “you’re in a better position to learn that next skill,” Weiner said.

Indeed, the mindset to learn what’s next is critical. “Everyone needs to become a learner again,” Weiner said.

As the rise of artificial intelligence makes some jobs obsolete, success in the future will belong to those able to tolerate ambiguity in their work. Too many recent graduates approach their job descriptions the way they did a syllabus in college — as a recipe for winning in a career. They want concrete, well-defined tasks, as if they were preparing for an exam in college.

Like many of the other soft skills sought by employers, a tolerance for ambiguity is often developed early in life. The feedback children get from adults and teachers has an enormous impact on their ability to deal with uncertainty.

Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor, has found that praising children for their intelligence, rather than for their effort, often leads them to give up when they encounter the unknown. It’s much better, in her opinion, to compliment children for their persistence. People perform better when they can focus on things they can control rather than things they cannot.

“ ‘Hard working’ is what gets the job done,” Dweck told me in a 2015 interview. “The students who thrive are not necessarily the ones who come in with the perfect scores. It’s the ones who love what they’re doing and go at it vigorously.”

Dweck has conducted studies over the years that found that people would do better if they thought of their intelligence as flexible and not something fixed at birth. People who have what Dweck calls a “growth mindset” see challenges as opportunities to broaden their skills. But people who have been constantly praised for their intelligence freeze in ambiguous situations when they don’t know the answer and often tie themselves in knots trying to reach perfection.

And, unfortunately, it’s not something we’re teaching the next generation to do because of our desire to protect our kids and fill every waking moment with organized activities, which only seems to worsen as they get older and receive a trophy merely for showing up at practice.