How Soft Is Actually Hard and Tough
The promise we make our students when they apply to our study programs invariably covers success. We promise to prepare them for successful jobs, for successful careers and, if all else fails, for meaningful lives. And they used to believe us because we had a track record of successful alumni. What did we teach those successful alumni? We taught them what we, as an educational system, thought that the labor market would need them when our graduates would be knocking on the HR departments’ door to be hired. And since business and, for a long time, international business are areas where the most jobs are created and the most money earned, our University used to do a good job.
Relatively suddenly however, the majority of our graduates are no longer that easily hired. True, the best ones get the best jobs and sadly they are not in Romania. Those who eventually get their jobs very often hear complaints about the usefulness of what they know or rather do not know. Your interpersonal skills are not well developed, you speak the language, in monosyllables true, but you cannot be trusted to write correctly. You are too pushy, too aggressive, too soft, too intolerant, too flexible, too indifferent, too focused on your own projects, too slow, too superficial, and the list can continue almost infinitely. What did they teach you at university? – comes as a natural question in such situations. And the answer is not easy to give – anywhere in the world. We teach our students a lot of things, maybe too many – at least in their opinion. We teach them not enough – in our opinion – and we teach them (almost) nothing useful in the opinions of their potential employers. The market needs skills – technical or hard skills are taken for granted. What makes the difference between long lines of graduates with standardized higher education diplomas, however, are their soft skills!
Why does that happen? There are many answers, none very easy to give or to receive and none entirely truthful. We promise to teach students skills and if we look at the way our curricula are designed we can somehow infer that we don’t do a very good job. The media is obviously ready to jump, agree on and condemn our incapacity to be practical and offer lifelong useful skills. And yet, the truth that we often neglect to admit is that our Universities streamline candidates for certain types of companies, those who favor discipline, compliance, respect for authority, mainstream ideas and mainstream solutions, who take solutions from their managers or leaders, and we do their initial training by inducting people into the discipline and ethos of work as they see it. Of course the official rhetoric is that we prepare people for critical and creative thinking and that most companies and organizations need critical and creative thinkers in order to offer good solutions to business and social problems. But how true is it? The story of the managers for whom innovation and criticism represent a nuisance and personal offence is quite common in many environments, not only in Romania.
And why do we speak of soft skills while the world is still in various strong emotional stages over the Brexit referendum? Because they are strongly connected. The lack of education and, particularly, of strong critical thinking skills are the ones which brought us, or rather the British, here. And I mean at every level: politicians for not “educating” the public on the meaning and the consequences of their vote, for not really putting together a safe process for such situations, (part of the opposition admitted using Brexit as a “protest” being at the same time sure that it would not happen, the government did not build in several tiers of checks to make sure the democratic process is indeed democratic for as many as possible, including minorities), some of the Brexit supporters admitted after the results that they had intended their votes as a signal for the establishment to take notice, while the supporters of “remain” were convinced of the truth and validity of their option, they “thought” it was not possible and did not go to vote. The one thing that most people, from all categories, say is “we did not think it was going to happen”. So we are now dealing with the post Brexit syndrome, dubbed “Bregret” or “Regrexit” and while it is a good thing for a certain type of media for fueling the news feeds, it leaves other people with a feeling of sadness by looking at the way the democratic process is used without a real understanding of its strengths and weaknesses. Yes, it has weaknesses, but politicians are usually thinking fast, in system 1 mode, so this is what we get. The Sleep of Reason has always produced monsters but it takes education and wisdom to be able to recognize what Goya saw in his lifetime.
As for the education system, and here I mean the Romanian one, how does it cater to the development of soft skills in business, economics and technical universities? How many critical thinking, psychology and communication courses are there in the curricula at undergraduate, master and doctoral levels? How many University managers and administrators – and by the way, we do not really have professional managers in the Romanian universities – care about thinking and communication – because they consider those are innate and something or somebody will develop them miraculously? However, reality shows in painful ways that soft hits very hard, while wise people prepare their soft skills all their lives starting with school, going through university and continuing at their jobs. That is what is called lifelong learning and it is the developed societies and economies that invest in its development. And if we look at Brexit – not even they do it enough.