They’re Not “Soft Skills.” They’re Core Skills and Knowledge. And We Need to Start Saying So.

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By E. Michele Ramsey and Laurie Grobman


We’ve all heard it a million times—those of us in the humanities deal with “soft skills,” not “hard skills.” This binary, of course, stems (no pun intended) from the delineation between the “hard” sciences and all of those other “soft” majors. The knowledge and skills learned in the humanities, however, are by no means “soft.” Study after study on skill sets most valued by employers and story after story quoting titans of technology (Jobs and Cook) and captains of industry (Cuban) typically point to those skills we tend to define as “soft” as the most important skills a college graduate can have. Thus, it’s way past time to stop calling the skills and knowledge learned in the humanities “soft skills” and call them what they really are—core skills and knowledge. And it’s important that we add the term “knowledge” to what we teach because when we leave it out, we make invisible the very important theoretical work we do and teach.

Part of our book, Major Decisions: College, Career, and the Case for the Humanities, focuses on these core skills and knowledge. After researching popular press discussions about skills and knowledge needed by college graduates, as well as analyzing three bi-annual studies commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and eight yearly studies from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, we argue that the following core skills and knowledge are not only most desired by employers, but are also part and parcel to education in the humanities.

 

Critical Thinking: Much of what students do in the humanities requires critical thinking, a highly valued skill that audiences outside of academe many not understand as fundamental to the humanities. Based on their 2013 research study in the American Journal of Sociology on the relationships between skills and salary, Liu and Grusky claim, “the defining feature . . . of the last 30 years has been a precipitous increase in the wage payoff to jobs requiring synthesis, critical thinking, and deductive and inductive reasoning.” They call it the “analytic revolution.” Whether they are deconstructing arguments in public speaking, debating policies in history, or discussing the immense whiteness of the literary canon in English, students in the humanities are constantly practicing and refining their critical thinking skills.

 

Written Communication: Students in the humanities also write. A lot. And it’s a good thing, too, because it’s a primary core skill in demand for most jobs, even those in engineering and technology. In his book, You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education, George Anders quotes Liz Kirschner, head of talent acquisition at a Chicago investment-research firm, who emphasizes the importance of already knowing how to write upon graduation: “It’s easier to hire people who can write—and teach them how to read financial statements—rather than hire accountants in hopes of teaching them to be strong writers.” Students in the humanities write research papers, presentations, poems, argumentative essays, and many other genres of writing. But they also read a lot of good writing, which teaches them even more about excellent writing.

 

Oral Communication: According to Burning Glass Technology’s 2015 report, The Human Factor: The Hard Time Employers Have Finding Soft Skills, oral communication ability is recognized as one of the skills (along with writing, customer service, supervision, and basic mathematics) with the largest gaps between employer demand and the supply of workers with those skills. Jobs that require low levels of communication skills (also called “social skills”) have fared poorly and/or are those at the highest risk for automation because there is no technological replacement for a person who can foster interpersonal relationships and persuade people in the room.

Deming’s research shows that while the share of tasks requiring social skills grew by 24 percent from 1980 to 2012, the market for math-intensive tasks grew only 11 percent, and other jobs “characterized by routine work” have continued to decline.” Deming measures data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and finds a correlation between higher social skills and earning more money, even after controlling for education, standardized test scores, and job type. Hence, whether we’re talking about one’s role in the larger economy or one’s role in an organization, department, or work team, effective public and interpersonal communication skills are key to success.

The Ability to Collaborate: The combined intellect of a team is one thing, but working effectively as a team of smart individuals is quite another. In their 2016 essay, Cross, Rebele, and Grant note that time spent by both managers and employees in collaborative work increased 50 percent from 1996-2016. They also found that only 3-5 percent of employees contribute nearly one third of a company’s value-added collaborative work. In other words, employers need to close this gap by hiring employees who have experience with collaboration, understand what effective collaboration involves, and will work as a good member of teams.

The rise of the knowledge and creative economies means that disparate groups are often working together to bring products to the marketplace. For example, app salesperson Robert Tabb notes that only two of the ten meetings it takes to put a deal together are about technology. The other meetings involve fruitful collaborations between groups such as lawyers, marketers, creative directors, technical writers, and salespeople.

Humanities classes give students the opportunity to build the interpersonal, negotiation, critical thinking, metacognition, listening, and other skills recognized vital to effective collaboration. But other, perhaps less recognized, skills necessary for effective collaboration include an appreciation for diversity and the different perspectives a more diverse team

 

Problem Solving: Too often, humanities faculty and students aren’t seen as problem-solvers. The perception is that problems are concrete and pragmatic and humanities faculty and students are thinkers, not doers. But humanities students spend a great deal of their time problem-solving, distinguished by the tools of our trade that foster the kinds of nuanced, multilayered thinking that comes from disciplines that teach students to see all kinds of phenomena from multiple perspectives.

While problems have always been abundant in the workplace, the nature of problems has become more complex, as has the workplace itself, in the fast-paced, global knowledge economy. The critical and creative thinker in the humanities is always aware of the need for modifications based on the problem at hand and the many surrounding contextual issues. Studying human experience is by its very nature complex and challenging because human nature is messy, unpredictable, and resistant to simple or easy solutions. So are real-world problems, rarely presented to us as neatly packaged. Therefore, in humanities classrooms and in the world beyond it, complex problem-solving requires negotiating multiple, interconnecting, and often competing perspectives.

Creativity and Innovation: Nobel Prize–winning economist Edmund S. Phelps argues that ignoring the humanities and focusing solely on hiring technical workers belies the way that economic development actually occurs. Before any new machine or medical device is built, he notes, there is a desire and capacity to innovate, which typically emerges from the ability to imagine creative solutions, to communicate those ideas, and to work with teams to develop them more fully.

Tracy Carlson is an “unrepentant humanities geek” and a leading consultant and author on branding and marketing who doubled the market share of Wisk detergent. She writes, “A linear, instrumental mentality such as knowing protocols to solve specific problems isn’t especially helpful when the problems are big, floppy, interconnected, and changing fast.” Organizations need people who bring a healthy skepticism to projects as a means of finding “fresh ways to explore and reframe the issues, illuminate hypotheses, and challenge assumptions”; she notes that humanities students are well prepared to perform in this way.

Innovation isn’t defined by rules or steps to follow or specific practices and there are no means of copying the successful work of others. CEO Tony Golsby-Smith explains that while business schools train students to “control, predict, verify, guarantee, and test data,” they don’t typically teach students to “navigate ‘What if?’ questions and unknown futures.” He also points out that “any great work of art—whether literary, philosophical, psychological or visual—challenges the humanist to be curious, to ask open-ended questions, and to see the big picture. This kind of thinking is just what you need if you are facing a murky future or dealing with tricky, incipient problems.” Humanists, he argues, are not only trained to be creative but are also “uniquely adapted to lead creative teams.”

 

Technological competence and technological literacy: One of the arguments peppered throughout our book is that the humanities prepare students well to engage in a number of careers, including those that Anders argues are “indirectly catching the warmth of the tech revolution.” Humanities students graduate with basic to intermediate levels of technological competence, such as the ability to use technologies such as PowerPoint or social media platforms. But they also augment these skills with technological literacy by fostering critical thinking about a tool’s use. Humanities students come to the workplace prepared with both technological competence and technological literacy.

Humanities students, comfortable with change and ambiguity, are more than capable of learning higher levels of technology and, increasingly, get some intermediate-level training in the humanities classroom. This is happening, especially, in the digital humanities, where students are learning how to use computational tools and programs to supplement their humanities research and learning. But perhaps more importantly, humanities students have an education that gives them the ability to understand how to use these tools more effectively and with an understanding of their potential impact on society.

Humanities students are also well trained in information literacy—the ability to distinguish the best information from that which is less credible. The critical evaluation of digital source material is key when web sources can contain content created by both humans, bots, hyperlinks, and sponsored text. Critical assessment of information and data is crucial to effectively using these tools in the workplace and humanities students have the critical thinking and information literacy training to get the job done.

Ethics: The high-tech, global economy brings with it a host of ethical concerns. For example, the World Economic Forum calls artificial intelligence “just as much a new frontier for ethics and risk assessment as it is for emerging technology.” In another example focused on data analytics, Adam Weinberg asserts that “we need a generation of people shaping the field who see, acknowledge, and grapple with ethical concerns, especially as they relate to issues of privacy and civil liberties.” Given the humanities’ focus on both living a life with individual meaning and contributing to the common good, it is unsurprising that a humanities education helps students navigate ethics complexities in the workplace and come to understand humans’ ethical responsibilities to one another.

Contrasting students who may take one ethics course in their discipline, humanities students leave college with a deeper understanding of ethics that may be applied to all areas of life, including the workplace. Across the humanities in course after course, students wrestle with meaningful ethical dilemmas. In anthropology, students may consider ethical issues relating to the preservation and use of ancient sites and artifacts. In environmental history, students may debate a state’s efforts to place a landfill in one neighborhood over another. Students in an art history class may grapple with the ethics of whether art created by Nazis is worthy of study. Questions of ethics are fundamental to the humanities and our curricula prepares students to graduate with a firm grasp of ethics, including understanding how important it is to consider complex issues of context to ethical decision making.

Diversity, Inclusivity, and Equality: One thing is clear from the research: workplace diversity is good for business. Diverse and inclusive organizations are more innovative, smarter, productive, and generate higher revenues. Studies indicate that businesses see a 35 percent increase in return on investment for ethnically diverse companies and a 15 percent return for gender-diverse companies. While diversity makes teams smarter, good results may not accrue from simply putting diverse people together, given the complexities of inequities and bias. Humanities education helps bridge this gap.

The humanities are where “critical multicultural education” takes place in course after course. Multicultural education aims to secure social justice and overcome group-based oppressions, usually on the basis of issues like race, ethnicity, gender, class, nationality, and sexual orientation. Multicultural education prioritizes equality, justice, and human dignity for all, not merely a tolerance or respect for diversity and difference.

Through intellectual participation in issues of diversity, inclusion, and equality, students learn how to work productively with others different from themselves. They are exposed to the advantages of a multiplicity of viewpoints, learn to recognize their own and others’ explicit and implicit biases, and understand the deeply entrenched inequities in society that spill over to the workplace. Thus, humanities majors are prepared to become agents of change in the workplace.

Globalization, Global Understanding, and a Global Perspective: According to Gartside, Griccioli, and Richburg, global expansion is part of the growth plans for businesses across all economic sectors. From every corner of the globe, we are all part of an interconnected network. Courses and programs in the humanities play a vital role in the broader questions of understanding what culture is and means, as well as insights into deep cultural differences.

Daniel Rockmore, professor of mathematics and computer science, argues that “at the end of the day, it seems that the problems of the world boil down to me not understanding others and them not understanding me, and that’s a humanities problem.” We must understand the human world, culture, and history to understand global threats like fundamentalism, terrorism, racism, and fascism. Technology will not solve these problems, Rockmore asserts, because “ultimately, you can’t think of the human world without considering the questions that are raised in the humanities.”

Global economic growth was projected to be 3.9 percent in 2019, according to the World Economic Outlook. These continuing shifts mean that intercultural competence is necessary at all levels of business. Whether one sets foot in another country or not, the Society for Human Resource Management notes that a global mindset is necessary because “employees work virtually across borders via technology” and “interact with a globally dispersed customer base.” Employees must know how to cope with cultural differences and be open to others’ ideas, aware that attitudes, policies, leadership styles, and communication vary from culture to culture.

Gartside, Griccioli, and Richburg identify employees’ assumptions about cultural and economic superiority as a major hindrance to effective global success. Humanistic methods of analysis and investigation promote open-mindedness, perspective taking, cultural sensitivity, understanding of power relations, and recognition that history’s colonial legacies are still felt today.

Leadership: Lambert, Bassell, and Friedman argue that the high-tech, fast-paced global economy demands “progressive leaders who understand what it takes to be creative and innovative” rather than staying tethered to management practices of the past. Yet leadership is a hard concept to pin down, changing dramatically depending on many contextual factors.

Former Harvard University president, Drew Gilpin Faust, turns to the humanities as a place where excellent leaders are trained. She emphasizes “the importance of language to leadership, on the interpretive and empathetic power of words on which leaders rely, and on the necessity of the humanities and the broad liberal arts education that nurture these indispensable qualities.” Leadership also requires compassion, empathy, and a commitment to the common good over individual gains or power; these are emotions and values promoted through the study of the humanities.

Indeed, leadership programs highlight skills and knowledge sets emphasized in the humanities, even though they are not considered part of the humanities. Brungardt, Greeneaf, Brungardt, and Arensdorf point out that new leadership majors and programs tend to focus on issues-oriented courses centered on ethics and gender and courses that focus on a particular skill or set of skills, such as communication, critical inquiry/thinking, decision-making, teamwork, and persuasion—all consistent elements of the humanities classroom.

Students in the humanities also get practice in one of today’s most important skills for business: storytelling. Chris Grams, head of marketing at Tidelift, a software development company, asserts, “You can’t build a community of passion without storytellers. Their stories become rallying cries, the flags people salute to, the legends they tell to the newbies, the North Star that puts you back on course when you are led astray.” Storytelling is one of the hottest new trends in business programs and schools, but it’s been a staple of the humanities—in writing, literature, communication, and history—from the very beginning.

Changing the Narrative Starts with All of Us

We need to let students, university stakeholders, and employers know that majoring in the humanities will give them the core skills and knowledge most in demand. We need to give students confidence that they can study what they are passionate about and that their studies and hard work will lead them to employment they care about and that will earn them a good living. All disciplines are worthy. We need to give students fair and precise information about all majors, so students can study what they love, whether that’s communication, engineering, business, or any other discipline.

We need to work together to change the incorrect narratives about the humanities that are not just unsupported by data, but are contrary to the data, because they discourage students from choosing our majors and minors. A good start is to begin talking about what we teach—core skills and knowledge—in very different ways. Core skills and knowledge are fundamental to the humanities. They are not “soft skills” and it’s time we make that clear.