Haroon Tahrir speaks with ease over the phone, his demeanour amiable, and his conversation articulate.
It’s a consequence of the 24-year-old’s training as a PR and marketing executive, one that has helped him succeed in his career over the last four years in a way that his straight As could never have.
Haroon’s skill sets are what’s generically lumped under the umbrella term of ‘soft skills’ – the buzzword that has job recruiters and HR managers champing at the bit. It’s a catchphrase every management course and resume boasts. They are what some universities vouch to imbue you with at the end of your course.
But what exactly are soft skills and why are they so integral to living a successful, effective life in the 21st century?
A definition that sidesteps jargon and simplifies the term to its essence is this: they are the skills that help you socialise, communicate and interact effectively with other people. They are often intangible and can’t be measured and are rooted in emotional intelligence.
What makes soft skills one of the pillars of life in the modern world is the importance recruiters place on hiring employees who display these characteristics. In an interview to a US business magazine earlier this year, Susan Vitale, chief marketing officer of American HR software provider iCIMS, points out that one in three recruiting professionals believes job candidates’ soft skills have gotten worse in the past five years.
Friday’s education expert, Sanjeev Verma, CEO of Intelligent Partners which offers guidance to students applying for higher education courses overseas, lists soft skills as ‘interpersonal skills, work ethic, problem-solving, teamwork, time-management and communication skills’.
He is convinced that soft skills are critical to workplace success. ‘There are very few workplaces where you don’t interact with another person. Even jobs that require you to deal with numbers and research – such as that of a scientist – require them as you need to be able to communicate your findings effectively.’
If you need an example look no further than Elon Musk. Trained as a physicist, the entrepreneur’s (who is the founder of Tesla, SpaceX and Hyperloop) scientific brilliance and vision has been enhanced by emotional intelligence, empathy and communication skills – all key elements of his success.
Aspiring Minds, an Indian employment solutions company’s study based on 150,000 engineering students who graduated in 2013, concluded that only 7 per cent of them are employable. Lack of logical reasoning and communication skills were listed as some of the factors that hampered their employability.
It’s a problem world over – in the UK, a report by CBI and Pearson, which has expertise in educational courseware, found that a third of 344 companies interviewed were unhappy with graduates’ self-management skills.
American consulting firm McKinsey and Company’s recent report stated that 40 per cent of employers say they struggle to fill vacancies because younger workers (read millennials) lack soft skills such as communication, teamwork and punctuality.
Closer home in the UAE, The Middle East Skills Report, conducted by Bayt.com and YouGov, revealed that 26 per cent job seekers in Middle East felt the educational system doesn’t train students on skills relevant in today’s marketplace.
These statistics are a telling summary of how educational institutions and systems may be falling short of preparing the millennial generation and the older crop of Gen Z for the workplace. While the discussion has always centred around the failure of universities in living up to the promises they make, educational experts and graduates themselves have been looking deeper into the issue and questioning the role of schools.
Pakistani national Haroon has been excelling at in his career since he started working four years ago, but he feels he could have done better had his school trained him in soft skills. ‘I’ve taken public speaking courses but I get nervous to this day because when I was in school during the formative 14 years of my life, I wasn’t trained in public speaking. Instead, what I did learn was the Pythagoras Theorem and guess which one I’m using now,’ he laughs.
Four years in university did bridge that gap, Haroon agrees, but it ‘feels like school wasted an opportunity and these skills could have become second nature to me’.
Graeme Scott, the principal of the new Fairgreen International School that opens its doors next month in Sustainable City, feels soft skills are more than ‘just employability factors’ that add weightage to your CV or university application. That’s a reason he calls them ‘learner attributes especially emotional intelligence, global mindedness and the capacity to act according to a set of positive and ethical values’.
Graeme also doesn’t pass the buck on to universities: ‘Many of these skills are best practiced and learned within social situations, and schools make for wonderfully rich and complex social communities.
‘Moreover, children begin learning as soon as they are born and their brains are extremely malleable. So it is essential to address soft skills at an early age.’
The importance of giving children the skills to cope with and navigate diverse new environments and people is an important function of soft skills and some experts emphasise that it should be honed right from school days. ‘It is essential that children learn these skills before going to university as they will need to rely on such soft skills even more in a university environment, especially when they are away from home,’ says Sanjeev.
When 22-year-old Yuvika Bhatia enrolled at the American University of Dubai, the scholastic culture they espoused demanded analytical skills and creative thinking to complete assignments, exams and projects – a bit of a shock to her system.
‘In school I would memorise everything – from writing assignments to languages such as Arabic and French because the goal was earning good grades. But my conversation skills are a bare minimum and that makes these language skills completely useless,’ she rues about the futility of teaching methods that emphasises hard skills – technical or discipline-specific skills such as knowledge of medicine or coding, often measured through IQ – that she was exposed to.
Good education, the kind that prepares students for the real world and doesn’t just educate them in subjects and hard skills, shouldn’t be caged by the confines of curriculum, believes Graeme, whose school will follow the IB curriculum.
‘I believe it is more the school’s philosophy. If we make our priorities clear, we can build the curriculum around these elements of soft skills. There will no doubt be commercial programmes that claim to address them better but these skills can be developed at school.’
Soft skills are hard work. Haroon developed his public speaking skills and boosted his confidence at Toastmasters. He is also community ambassador at a special needs centre.
Yuvika’s time at the youth organisation AISEC transformed her personality. She developed a range of skills such as time and crisis management, teamwork and conflict resolution thanks to participating in the various volunteering and entrepreneurial activities the organisation conducts.
A method of teaching that integrates soft skills will also save students time and effort they would otherwise have to spend developing these skills while juggling exam-based curriculums that work students to the bone. ‘There was so much I wanted to do in terms of extracurricular in school but because my IGCSE A level curriculum sucked the living daylights out of me and I was studying 24/7 I never really had time to develop myself outside of school,’ says Haroon.
Quite like several experts we spoke to, Bali-based author and leadership coach Arthur Carmazzi, too, believes that curriculums are what schools make of students.
It’s this belief that’s led him to partner with Malaysia’s KingselyEdu Group and launch the Kingsley Leadership Academy (KLA) next month in Kuala Lumpur. The boarding school plans to implement the IGCSE curriculum in the most offbeat way you can imagine – classrooms will be replaced with ‘pods’ (groups of five kids of mixed ages) and teachers with ‘coaches’, and schooling will be gamified.
‘IGCSE gives you a framework of learning outcomes. It doesn’t tell you that you have to learn in a certain way,’ explains Arthur. To correct that, kids who enrol in this school will study traditional subjects through innovative methods such as running a business as a group, teaching each other and other people a subject or field of your choice on YouTube channel, and writing editing and publishing a book at the end of the year that will be put up on Amazon.
In the process, children pick up skills of teamwork, conflict resolution and understanding yourself in relation to others automatically, which says Arthur, are vital talents when you enter the workforce.
Having worked with international organisations to improve their corporate culture Arthur knows the field only too well. He is also well-aware of the reasons millennials and the oldest of Gen Z trip up during hiring. ‘This generation is very connected online and know where to find everything. But that also means they’re not good with people. They’re good learners and want to learn but when they start to work and have to take up a leadership position and get other people todo things, they falter.’
But can such unconventional education practices meet the straight-laced assessment criteria of IGCSE exams?
Arthur, who has applied this system on his 10- and seven-year-old children to great success, believes it will. ‘Children often study subjects and there’re no practical outcomes,’ he says. ‘Teaching others and writing and then editing a book are processes that reinforce knowledge. People who own businesses will work harder and if that business requires learning they will learn because they want to and not because they need too. It’s just doing it different from the homework culture,’ he explains.
A groundswell of schools, including Fairgreen and KLA have awakened to the benefits and possibilities of equipping their students with soft skills.
For the Clarion School in Dubai, the answer lies in walking a fine line between tradition and innovation – they follow the model of progressive education, a pedagogical movement that’s been around since the 19th century but has recently returned to popularity and has been championed by best-selling British author and educationalist Sir Ken Robinson.
‘Traditional education compartmentalises subjects, teaching them as isolated topics often characterised by drills and rote learning,’ explains Susan Whistler, director of marketing at the school.
‘Progressive education uses classroom activities, books and other traditional methods but focuses on experiential learning and children are assessed less through tests and more through how they work on collaborative projects and individual interviews that measure their understanding instead of memory for facts.
‘There is an emphasis on problem solving, critical thinking, trial and error and collaboration and the process of learning but within an academic environment and replicates adult life.’
Dr Paul Lieblich, head of Clarion School, is a passionate advocate of this system of learning. ‘It goes beyond book learning and focuses on the process of learning and practical application,’ he explains.
Soft skills, he believes, can’t be learnt at a desk. It’s a reason the school terms non-academic activities like art and sport, which are traditionally called extracurricular, co-curriculars; they believe it complements subject learning and is equally important to nurturing well-rounded individuals.
Clearly, a singular focus on traditional academic success can affect children’s well-being.
Yuvika, for instance, spent all of high school concentrating on studies instead of also pursuing other activities – something that impacted her ability to make friends easily. ‘I was uncomfortable trying to strike up a conversation with people of other cultures and when I attended conferences such as Mock United Nations [at University], I had an absolute lack of public speaking skills.’
Graeme drives home the importance of soft skills by explaining how Dylan Wiliam, Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at University College London, states that given that technology can easily perform any task that can be reduced to a routine, the creative arts might be the greatest contribution to economic growth in the future.
Simply put, a creatively-inclined individual has an edge in the job market overrun with technology.
Arthur joins the debate once again: ‘Take drama, for example,’ he says. ‘It is not just about making a play. It’s about presentation skills, negotiation, winning arguments through debate, expressing yourself. And you can apply all these to real life.’
What many parents and students often overlook is that soft skills aren’t limited to functioning in a workplace or rising up the career ladder. These are qualities that make you a happy, contented individual. To quote Dr Lieblich, ‘they’re characters of personality, virtues’.
Haroon agrees. ‘Of course, schools should focus on laying a solid foundation of knowledge and marketable skills but they should also inculcate a positive attitude and perspective.’
For soft skills are vital in the development of compassionate global citizens, he believes.
Top 10 soft skills
2) Teamwork and collaboration
4) Time management
6) Problem solving skills
8) Cross-cultural competency
9) Problem Solving skills: are you able to think critically and arrive at solutions