Employers value soft skills, but don't seek them out, expert says
Workplaces need a balance of STEM and liberal arts educations, says Michael Bloom
A science degree may land you a job, but a lack of liberal arts skills could cost you promotions and eventually the job itself, according to the Conference Board of Canada.
Michael Bloom, the board's vice-president of industry and business strategy, brings together representatives from post-secondary institutions and employers who hire graduates.
"Our goal is to improve the connection between the demand side — the employers — and the supply side — the post-secondary education and training systems in Canada," he told CBC's Mainstreet Cape Breton.
"We found people were hiring people on the basis of their special knowledge — the kind of degree or diploma they had — and then they were firing people on the basis of their lack of personal management, teamwork, problem solving and communication skills."
Encourage your children to pursue something they are deeply interested in.- Michael Bloom
One executive who reviewed the board's work said his bank often hired people based on credentials, and let them go for a lack of soft skills.
Another said they hired engineers because of their skill level, but ran into problems when the engineers attempted to communicate a project to a customer. People with backgrounds purely in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) often struggle to work as a team.
Bloom says those are the precise skills taught in liberal arts degrees, whether the student focused on English poetry in the 18th century or the sociology theories of Claude Levi-Strauss.
"The skills that are developed in a liberal arts program are often incredibly valuable in the workplace," Bloom said. "They need these skills in everybody to get the job done right."
He knows whereof he speaks. Bloom is the board's vice-president of industry and business strategy, and his PhD is in the liberal arts.
He rarely uses the technical skills he learned — just ask him about the role of liberal arts in Europe's Middle Ages — but the other skills did contribute to his work success.
Hard skills vs soft skills
When industry people talk to him about hiring, they talk about pipe-fitters, engineers and process-management people.
"But when you ask them who are you happy with? Who gets promoted? Then they start talking about these other skills. They inevitably get to … this combination of skills, attitudes and behaviours."
That "strong emotional IQ" learned in the liberal arts plays a crucial part in good team work. It teaches creative and critical thinking, along with communication skills.
But don't drop out of your engineering degree to study the history of Zimbabwe just yet.
"It's not a zero-sum game of transferring people out of STEM and into the liberal arts. It is maintaining a belief in the value of the full range of educational offerings," Bloom said.
"Encourage your children to pursue something they are deeply interested in. Any area of study will lead to the development of the individual and that will always be good for them in their careers."