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Soft Skills Are Key to Better Jobs

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The importance of science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, knowledge in our labor market is talked about a lot.

Jobs requiring that knowledge in STEM fields often pay much more than the average job. Many STEM jobs, such as computer programmers and operators, also are growing much faster than the average of all jobs.

But STEM skills are not sufficient to succeed in the workforce.

A growing number of companies and government agencies around the state and country complain that workers don’t have the necessary “soft skills” – anything from teamwork to communicating and to critical thinking.

The U.S. Department of Labor has a program that enables you to quantify the importance of soft skills in occupations. The program measures knowledge, skills, and abilities in more than 700 occupations in the nation.

A couple of basic skills – active listening, speaking, and critical thinking – can identify the importance of soft skills.

Through surveys, each attribute is ranked from one to seven in terms of the level needed to perform a job.

A score of two in critical thinking, for example, means the worker can “determine whether a subordinate has a good excuse for being late.” A level of four means the worker can “evaluate customer complaints and determine appropriate responses,” and a six means the worker can “write a legal brief challenging a federal law.”

About 97 percent of occupations required soft skills ranging from 2.6 to 6.5. The need for these soft skills, in fact, is even more universal than, say, the need for math skills.
And the three occupations expected to add the most jobs in the U.S. over the next 10 years, according the Labor Department, all have a level of critical thinking over a score of 5 – personal care aides, registered nurses, and retail salespersons.

The basic structure of the program is comprised of modular, hands-on, engaging activities that focus on six key skill areas: communication, enthusiasm and attitude, teamwork, networking, problem solving and critical thinking, and professionalism. You can find the DOL program here:

Compared to math, the level of soft skills needed in all occupations was higher.

And moreover, generally speaking, the greater the level of soft skills required, the higher the pay associated with the occupation.

The bottom line is that STEM skills are important for many occupations, but employers value soft skills in all occupations.

(This column first ran in the Richmond Times Dispatch)

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