I cringe whenever I read or hear the term “soft skills” as it applies to those non-technical skills employers of engineers and scientists value, but the teaching of which often get relegated to liberal arts courses in college.
“Soft skills” is such a weak phrase for such an important skill set. Few people who lack the ability to communicate in a variety of modes, work well in teams, or think critically about issues are going to succeed in their chosen career. A few years ago, an online survey conducted for the Association of American Colleges and Universities revealed that 93% of employers either somewhat or strongly agree that “candidates’ demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major” (AACU report, 2013).
Unfortunately, that message does not get through to many STEM students, in part, because people still talk about “soft skills” as though they were a nice addition to one’s resume, but not required. Such weak phrasing leads many STEM majors to place less value on those humanities, arts, and social science courses that nearly every degree program requires to create a “well-rounded” human. Instead, many students would rather spend their money and effort solely on the technical, “hard skill” courses and gripe their way through composition, philosophy, sociology, etc.
One effort under way at many universities, including my own, is to incorporate written and oral communication, teaming, critical thinking, and problem-solving into disciplinary courses rather than expecting students to learn these skills elsewhere. This way, students begin to view these skills as just another part of the STEM curriculum, as opposed to “frou-frou” subjects. Change comes slowly, especially in academia, but faculty eventually realize that the little bit of extra effort required in teaching these topics results in more well-crafted student products, which is a win-win-win situation for faculty, their students, and employers.