Published March 8, 2019
Every year thousands of recent college grads apply for entry-level jobs around the country. Most will sit for interviews in waiting rooms surrounded by other recent grads – all with essentially the same degree and technical qualifications.
Employers say that colleges are turning out graduates who are technically very competent, and the vast majority of recent grads arrive with the requisite job-specific hard skills they are seeking.
On the flip side, employers steadily report a large gap when it comes to essential workplace skills – so-called soft skills – in those same well-educated and otherwise qualified job seekers.
Dodge City Community College is working to make sure students understand that the hard skills they learn in college will get them the job, but it’s typically the soft skills that will help them keep their job.
The DC3 Connection Center specializes in transfer and career readiness by providing access to resources and career and transfer guidance. Connection Center staff also coordinate with the Student Achievement Resource Center for Student Success Workshops.
The Student Success Workshops foster soft skills and employability by teaching strategies that enhance learning, critical thinking and problem solving – aimed primarily at academic performance, but quietly developing essential workplace traits that are relevant to any job.
Education and workforce experts debate about how best to develop soft skills in college students, but one refrain is common: students must get involved. Activities beyond the classroom will ultimately increase a job-seeker’s appeal as much as any class because they provide a tangible, active way to develop skills no classroom can teach.
Chloe Wurst, advising specialist for the Connection Center, agrees that extra-curricular or community involvement is key to developing basic skills like communication and networking.
“Students should take advantage of those different opportunities to start building their network,” Wurst said. “It’s no secret that much of the time the person who gets the job is the one who knows the person doing the hiring. That’s only going to happen with networking and communication.”
Wurst said it’s crucial to develop these soft skills long before actual job interviews.
“There are always accounts of recent graduates who meet the educational requirements for a job and get called for interviews,” Wurst said, “but they fall through the cracks during the interview stage. Regardless of their education or training, they may get passed over due to a lack of communication or social skills.”
Even the U.S. Department of Labor advocates for soft skills training beginning at the middle school level with its program “Skills to Pay the Bills: Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success.” 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.
Universal job skills like effective communication, critical thinking, active learning, and adaptability are not specific classes a student can tick off of their degree plan, but without developing those fundamental workplace skills and many others, students are at a distinct disadvantage when they hit the marketplace.
Greg Ruehle, president and CEO of Servi-Tech, said even in the highly technical world of soil science and agri-chemicals, soft skills are the hardest to find in new applicants. Ruehle said that he will often hire someone for their soft skills and then teach them the technical side.
“I find those skills absolutely vital and they can be challenging to find,” he said. “If they have a basic knowledge of agronomy or lab services – with a wonderful personality and desire to be part of a team – we’ll teach them the technical skills because those are the type of people you can work around every day. Those are the type of people a company wants to invest in.”
Human resources professionals say that job performance is increasingly evaluated with as much emphasis on character traits, attitudes and basic people skills as on technical aptitude or knowledge.
Truly preparing for a career requires more investment than just acquiring those hard skills through a college degree program. Employers need workers who have developed themselves more holistically, with skills and personal characteristics obtained through participation in diverse activities. Involvement in these types of activities naturally develops a student’s social competency and professional etiquette.
Linda Almendarez is president of the DC3 Student Government Association and an elementary education major.
Almendarez said she arrived at DC3 with a strong desire to get involved. When she discovered that the club she wanted to join, Latino Leaders, had few active members, she took the initiative to push all of her friends to join.
Her solo membership drive garnered about a dozen supporters, several of whom were from non-Latino countries so the group’s name was changed to the International Club, which is now a thriving campus organization leading community service efforts.
Running the International Club meetings as president, and now the SGA meetings, as well as monthly presentations to the DC3 Board of Trustees – Almendarez is naturally acquiring valuable workplace skills and adding to what will be her professional network.
“For me it’s all about communication,” she said. “This has given me so much confidence. I know I can meet those kind of responsibilities.”
Her involvement different campus organizations is developing skills she knows will serve her daily in teaching.
“I have an understanding that not everybody is the same,” she said. “Taking a leadership role is important wherever you go, even if you aren’t the boss. It’s how you can make others in the room respond that makes you a leader.”
Almendarez plans to transfer to Emporia State and get involved in student government there. She also knows the value of industry networking so she’ll seek out student-teacher groups.
The need for soft skills can pop up just about anywhere. Just prior to her interview, Almendarez locked her keys in her car. It’s unlikely to show up on her résumé, but she demonstrated her adaptability and initiative by looking up YouTube video on her phone and she quickly had her car open using a shoestring.
Servi-Tech typically sees scores of applicants for their job postings. Ruehle said that often an applicant’s education and technical aspects are a given. As he and Servi-Tech management sift through résumés and interviews, what they look for are indications of a job-seeker’s intangibles like disposition, adaptability, teamwork, prioritization, and cultural fit.
“So I like to find those students that are involved,” Ruehle said. “It could be clubs on campus, sports or intramurals … or it’s that student working their way through school. I’m looking for people with the work ethic and determination to do what it takes to get the job done.
“Targeting the personality to the position and the skill set becomes a critical step when you’re hiring kids just coming out of college.”
Job-seekers cannot rely on advanced tech skills alone. Servi-Tech heavily utilizes advanced technology in gathering and managing the data from the millions of soil samples it has collected, but according to Ruehle, the human abilities behind a keyboard and mouse are what make an employee valuable.
“I’m only concerned when tech gets in the way of interpersonal communication,” he said. “The ability to effectively communicate with a customer or a co-worker is key to success in these types of positions.”
While advances in technology can obviously benefit students, Wurst points out a downside.
Students today communicate almost exclusively digital – emails and texts, laden with truncated syntax, brutal spelling and grammar, and occasional, random punctuation. Online gaming and the internet make isolation comfortable, pleasant, and even productive for many students.
An ancillary effect of so much indirect, impersonal interaction is a dearth in the communication, collaboration, and leadership skills so desired by employers. Many college students struggle to write very basic papers and are uncomfortable and clumsy in one-to-one conversations – let alone presenting a business report or speaking to corporate clients.
When an employer states that they are looking for someone with “Good Communication Skills,” how does an applicant demonstrate that on a résumé? Everyone will say they have good communication skills, but the applicant who was secretary of the Student Senate last semester, participated in the show choir, and published a couple short stories in the college literary magazine has three, bullet-pointed proofs of good communication skills.
“I would encourage participation in any club or organization that provides opportunities for students to develop emergent leadership traits,” Wurst said, “…anything where they get out of their tech bubble and get that human interaction and develop appropriate people skills. They’ll begin to understand the value of the networking directly with people who have similar goals.”
Aneth Morales is a sophomore bio-chem major from Dodge City. She was involved in a lot of extra-curricular activities like sports and band in high school, but once she started college she wanted to focus her energy on academic efforts.
Morales spent her first semester at DC3 just going through the motions – getting good grades but not engaging beyond class and homework. After getting involved in a few organizations she found herself more interested in campus events and meeting more people.
“I felt more engaged with the college and the community, for sure,” she said. “I go into these clubs or groups with the mindset of what it’s going to teach me rather than what I can get out of it.”
Morales is a member of Phi Theta Kappa – an academic honors society, with a clear scholastic focus. However, the Society emphasizes development of soft skills during its conferences though, with most activities and breakout sessions designed to foster leadership, fellowship, teamwork and service.
Morales is already cultivating her network as she remains in contact with several students and leaders from the PTK conferences she’s attended.
Morales is also involved with the International Club and the Creative Writing Club as well as serving as a peer tutor. She also volunteers with the Salvation Army for their holiday drives.
She said the variety in her activities is definitely purposeful.
“I really like being part of those things,” she said. “I want that diversity so I can work on parts of myself that are underutilized.”
Most active students participate because they enjoy a group’s activity or purpose; how the activity might play on a résumé isn’t really considered. Morales, too, gets involved for the intrinsic rewards, but acknowledges that a participating in a wide range of activities can demonstrate good qualities to a potential employer down the road.
“I think employers will see these activities and know that I have a larger skill set, and that I’m willing to step outside of my comfort zone and do all these things that aren’t at all related.”
A recent LinkedIn survey of HR professionals and hiring managers indicated that the top three characteristics that essentially make any job-seeker unhirable are: a sketchy employment history; poor communication skills, and a lack of networking.
“Every school has opportunities to network and develop social skills,” Wurst said. “Students who don’t take advantage of those resources are hindering their ability to build themselves.
“It really starts with effective social interaction. Employers want those emergent leadership qualities so they know you can communicate with many different team members and collaborate effectively. College is the perfect opportunity to develop those skills.”
Luz Cobian is a sophomore chemical engineering major headed to K-State. She’s also the DC3 chapter president of Phi Theta Kappa.
Cobian’s active participation necessarily engenders a high level of prioritization and work ethic. Along with her studies to maintain the 3.5 GPA required for PTK membership, Cobian is a member of the DC3 Quiz Bowl team, the International Club and plays violin in the Dodge City Symphony. In her free time she works two jobs; as a lifeguard at the YMCA and as a tutor in the Student Achievement Resource Center.
Cobian said that when she began her college career she was a chronic procrastinator and relatively reserved and hesitant. Gradually, being involved in so many groups and activities developed her nascent leadership skills and made her more ambitious to challenge her comfort zone.
“Whatever energy you put into being involved, you get so much more in return,” she said. “I know that my future employer will see that I’m comfortable being a leader and not afraid to take on responsibility.”
PTK conferences gather scores of young, ambitious students together, providing crucial fellowship with like-minded people, as well as connections that may pay off beyond just new friendships.
“I really enjoy the conferences,” Cobian said. “It’s good to meet so many people who have the same kind of attitudes about education and careers. Plus, you never know when your future employer might be right there.”
She said she sees college as an opportunity to build all the skills needed for her career – much more than just earning the right credentials.
“In engineering you definitely have to be able to work as part of a team and communicate in a clear manner,” she said. “If you’re unable to do so it can set up challenges that will eventually hurt your career.”
Cobian said the accountability and responsibility required of so much activity have caused big changes.
“The little push can be very beneficial,” she said. “Being involved in a lot of things has made me willing to lead other people and given me the confidence to form my thoughts and be more outspoken.”
A college degree simply tells an employer that a student has completed enough training to enter a field with a modicum of familiarity with the subject. However, every employer has their own job-specific skills, procedures and approach, so what they really look for are employees who are self-motivated critical thinkers who can learn and adapt.
If the ultimate goal of college is a good job after graduation, then students must help potential employers form the impression that you are someone who will be a motivated, enthusiastic, critical thinker who makes the most out of talents and resources.
“Having the technical skills to perform essential job duties is obviously important,” Wurst said, “but especially at the entry level, it’s those intangible soft skills are going to set you apart.”
By Scott Edger