Automation in a global economy is creating thousands of new jobs that require an entirely different type of worker. No longer is it enough to memorize facts, solve equations, and operate tools and equipment. Machines can do that far faster and with more accuracy than any mere mortal. Instead, employers need employees who can “use their knowledge and skills — by thinking critically, applying knowledge to new situations, analyzing information, comprehending new ideas, communicating, collaborating, solving problems, and making decisions” (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2002).
We commonly refer to these as employability skills, and references to these skills litter both academic and professional literature. Technical skills are the knowledge and skills needed to perform a particular task or activity; technical skills are unique to a specific occupation and often require specialized training and practice for proficiency. And employability skills are everything technical skills are not. They are a cluster of essential non-technical skills and attributes that include work habits, attitudes, character traits, and competencies that are broadly applicable and transferable to any workplace environment at any level of experience (Lamoreaux, 2022). These skills shape how employees work both on their own and with others.
Employability skills are critical to success in today’s world.
The renowned scholar John Dewey believed “the purpose of education [is] to provide the skills and competencies necessary for the integration of work, family, and community life” (Stone, 2014). This means if we want our students to thrive, we should align our curricula to the skills needed for success today. Teaching human skills, therefore, becomes the shared responsibility of many, including educators. The resources that follow focus on using both direct and indirect instruction to integrate the teaching of human skills into any subject matter. Direct instruction involves understanding human skills, recognizing why they are important, and determining when they can or should be used. Indirect instruction embeds human skills into the teaching of other skills and knowledge.
Employability skills are uniquely human.
The resources that follow focus on using both direct and indirect instruction to integrate the teaching of human skills into any subject matter. Direct instruction involves understanding human skills, recognizing why they are important, and determining when they can or should be used. Indirect instruction embeds human skills into the teaching of other skills and knowledge.
Providing positive feedback when students complete a task, communicate an idea or solve a problem will enhance their awareness of how and when they are using human skills. Similarly, identify when human skills could have been used more effectively. Consider the following examples of valuable feedback.
- “The successful completion of this project demonstrated your ability to work together as a team and use critical thinking skills.”
- “Your approach to step two demonstrated creativity and attention to detail.”
- “Great work solving this equation; your persistence paid off.”
- “While your solution was creative, it did not meet the desired outcome. Continue to use critical thinking to explore other solutions.”
The use of reflection can be traced back to Dewey (1910), who described it as “the active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it.” Reflection occurs when students participate in peer reviews, assignment revisions and course portfolios. We can also support reflection through short writing assignments added to any learning activity.
- Identify the skills that were most helpful in creating and delivering your presentation (e.g., empathy, verbal communication, time management, preparedness, self-awareness, professionalism).
- Identify the skills you struggled with most in your group project (e.g., leadership, effective communication, decision making, time management, showing flexibility, resource management).
- What skills did you use to analyze the case study (e.g., technology use, critical thinking, showing flexibility, empathy, information use)?
Assess skill development.
While rubrics provide another method for giving feedback and prompting self-reflection, they are also used for assessing learning. A good rubric articulates the expectations for an assignment by listing criteria and describing levels of quality (Dickinson & Adams, 2017). Similar to other teaching tools, rubrics can focus on developing or improving human skills.Rubrics_ Oct 2023
Or they can interweave the use of human skills with technical skills and knowledge.Rubric 2_ Oct 2023
When we weave the language of human skills throughout our curricula at all levels and across all assignments, students begin to understand the importance of these skills and become more self-aware. However, teaching employability skills doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. As our understanding increases, we can find organic ways to incorporate them into our existing curricula. Additionally, we must remember that skill development is a learning process that takes time. Thus, it is critical that all faculty embrace the need to teach, assess and reflect on human skills, so students have an opportunity to develop these skills across their academic pathways.
Kari Lamoreaux, Ph.D., is a full-time professor at Utah State University.
Cory Ortiz, Ph.D., is the dean of the School of Career Education at the University of Alaska Southeast.