What do employers want and why is the education system failing them?

While the digitally-driven economy disrupts established ways, calling for workers with a balance of hard and soft power skills, the old education system is failing to produce what employers need. There is a solution. Just like Amazon, Uber, or Airbnb, technology can cut out the middle man in paradigm-shifting ways, connecting potential employees with employer needs, and motivating learners through autonomy, relatedness, and competency.

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The digitally-driven economy is speeding along at an accelerating pace, forcing companies that want to survive to adapt rapidly. Using technology, Amazon and Ali Baba have completely altered the retail and wholesale merchandise markets, Uber is overturning public transportation, and Airbnb revolutionizing how people find accommodations for business and pleasure travel. In the face of these changes, employers need workers who are not only technically competent, but who possess soft power skills to adapt. Educational institutions have failed to use technology to cause any earth-shaking change, and they aren’t providing employers what they need for the future. The solution lies in using technology in paradigm-shifting ways, using more effective forms of human motivation to inspire learning.

Digital companies like Amazon are revolutionizing the economy, changing the requirements for employees who can survive in the rapid-pace environment. Picture Source.

Hard Skills and Soft Power Skills

Imagine having two candidates for a mid-level management position in a global retail sales company. One person is a whiz at electronic spreadsheets and data manipulation, and is an expert at analyzing past sales and forecasting revenue. That candidate’s work history indicates that he is a compliant, quiet worker who sticks to himself and to doing what he is told, and though reliable, has not advanced many ideas for creating new revenue streams. The second candidate is competent in finances, but is not naturally gifted with technical software; she took longer than her colleagues to learn the latest upgrade to the inventory system. This may be because she is often focused on her new ideas–some good, some bad–and persuasively socializing those ideas with others in the company.  Which candidate has the skills likely to be more valuable for the future of the company?

Picture Source

Successful, forward-looking companies need employees with technical competency, or “hard skills,” as well as a bundle of “soft power skills,” such as positive character traits, and high emotional and social competencies. They want someone who not only knows how to do the job, but who is self-motivated, inspires others to work toward common goals, is innovative, culturally-smart, self-disciplined, tactfully persuasive, proactive, communicates well… soft power skills are as numerous and complex as the human psyche.

How important are the character and soft-power skills to employers? According to the following reports—very important!

Exhibit 1:  A 2015 study from job market research firm Burning Glass Technologies analyzed 25 million online job postings from more than 40,000 sources and identified the most requested skills.

“We tend to focus on technical skill requirements, but the reality is employers are very vocal about the need for people to have foundational or baseline skills,” said Matt Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass. “Even in jobs that are really denominated in technical terms, it’s still very important to employers that people have the right soft skills.”


Their survey found that an average of 1 in every 3 skills requested in all job areas was a “baseline,” or soft power skill. Even in technical-oriented jobs, such as health-care or information technology, 1 in 4 skills sought by employers are soft skills.

Communication skills ranked as the most or second-most desired soft power skills in all industries. Organizational skills and writing abilities were also highly valued, ranking as second and third most commonly employer-requested skills overall.

Exhibit 2: The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), an organization that links colleges with employers, asked hiring managers in 200 companies in 2013 what skills they prioritize when they hire college grads.

Here are the 10 skills employers say they seek, in order of importance. The soft power skills are highlighted in red:

  1. Ability to work in a team
  2. Ability to make decisions and solve problems
  3. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work
  4. Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization
  5. Ability to obtain and process information
  6. Ability to analyze quantitative data
  7. Technical knowledge related to the job
  8. Proficiency with computer software programs
  9. Ability to create and/or edit written reports
  10. Ability to sell and influence others

Exhibit 3: A study of more than 500,000 recent job ads in the UK by the search company Adzuna analyzed most-used buzzwords to indicate employer requirements. Following are 10 words most commonly used by UK employers to describe the type of person they are seeking. Again, soft power skills are highlighted in red.

  • Organized (99,862 ads)
  • Communication skills (68,064 ads)
  • Motivated (65,011 ads)
  • Qualified (58,955 ads)
  • Flexible (56,551 ads)
  • Degree (54,049 ads)
  • Commitment (49,686 ads, +10% since 2012)
  • Passionate (47,971 ads)
  • Track record (40,471 ads)
  • Innovative (36,581 ads)

Exhibit 4: Asian employers are no exception in having a desire for soft power skills. The World Bank and a top Vietnamese think tank, the Central Institute of Economic Management (CIEM), surveyed 350 manufacturing and service sector firms in both the Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City areas, focusing on employer assessment of workforce skills, and of what skills they want to see in the future. The short answer: critical thinking, communication, and teamwork. Employees expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of education and skills in the current workforce, particularly among engineers and technicians. They emphasized that for management-level, or white collar workers, they wanted “cognitive” and “social” skills, including critical thinking, problem-solving, leadership, and communication.

In a world facing the automation of many technical tasks, the human soft skills become more and more valuable. Harvard and Stanford studies have found that jobs with high social skill requirements have experienced greater wage growth than others, with the strongest wage growth and employment opportunities being for those with both strong social skills and a high level of cognitive skills.

Failings of the Current System

And yet in the face of these employer requirements, today’s educational institutions are outdated and inefficient in developing technical competency, because raw knowledge and skills can so easily be acquired through information technology. Rather than fill up a lecture hall with one hundred or more students listening to a lecturer, technology makes the dissemination of information, including student interaction, available over electronic means. To get multi-cultural perspectives, students don’t need to uproot from their home country, spending scarce resources on room, board, and tuition—they can cheaply connect from anywhere on the globe, digitally face-to-face. Other than technical labs with advanced equipment, which could be shared resources for maximum utility, the system should no longer require expensive infrastructure that can set back US families up to $106,305 for just one year! (Based on tuition, room, board and fees at Harvard, 2016-2017)


“Will this be on the test?”

Even more concerning is the ineffectiveness of the current educational paradigm in developing soft power skills. The system pushes students through who are mainly concerned “will this be on the test?” Students take in technical information, process it, and demonstrate their competency by repeating it on tests (and even these results are often compromised by fluid grading standards, cheating, or results skewed by political indoctrination). The Asia-wide examination system, based largely on rote memorization, is particularly culpable in producing non-creative thinking automatons. In this mindset, skills that aren’t on the test are set aside. The emphasis on “will this be on the test?”  fails to develop and evaluate soft power skills. One can be a rude, selfish, unmotivated, unpersuasive, non-innovative person and still pass all the required tests to get a college degree. The “will this be on test?” system also fails to teach many students the practical application of the knowledge. Furthermore, many global state educational institutions are working more to indoctrinate compliant students in support of state goals or establishment ideologies, rather than imparting skills to challenge, innovate, collaborate, and become positive change agents—including changes that may threaten flaws and privileges in the established system.

The Japanese “Examination Hell” system, like most other Asian systems, focuses students on rote memorization in order to pass tests to reach the next level, and eventually a degree–all to the detriment of learning soft power skills. Picture Source.

It’s time for a paradigm shift.

Education today can and should be more universally available at much less cost than demanded by brick-and-mortar institutions, and should be more effective in producing well-rounded individuals with both hard and soft skills. Consider how Uber and Airbnb have revolutionized and rationalized transportation and accommodation. They have created online communities to shift the paradigm, directly linking consumers and service providers.  Online education has the potential to do the same—it allows cutting out the middle man of institutional monopolies, so that employees can directly link with the requirements of employers.

The shift in paradigm involves more than just taking the old system and transplanting it to an online environment. Universities offering online courses, and Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), are not a new thing, and much excitement was generated about offering education to the masses. But the basic model hasn’t changed—students listen to lectures, read material individually, or watch videos online with the purpose of downloading the approved set of information into their brains to repeat back on tests to obtain a certification of completion. That model hasn’t produced enough motivation for even the free MOOCs, which have greater than 90% dropout rates. In the US’s largest online university, where I taught for six years, the interaction was neither simultaneous nor virtually face-to-face, but via discussion threads, where students struggled to come up with some pithy remarks to persuade the instructor that they had read the material. There were group projects, but these tended to be individuals working on their own assigned parts and desperately trying to persuade their slower colleagues to hand in their part on time. Each individual was stuck in the paradigm of trying to figure out what would be on the test (answering an essay question in my courses, completing multiple choice answers regurgitating data from the readings in others), so that they could reach the ever-elusive carrot of a degree.


The Solution

The key to breaking out of the old paradigm is to realize the power of motivation–to offer autonomy, relationship, and competency. The old system forces motivation on learners with sticks and carrots of tests and certificates, but modern psychology tells us that we are better motivated when we have autonomy, such as a range of choices in matters concerning us, relatedness to others and to a purpose, and a feeling of gaining competency in things important to us. Imagine a world where learners aren’t motivated by memorizing what’s on the test in pursuit of a framed sheet of parchment, but by the freedom to choose their areas of interest, by the building of relationships locally and globally, by the acquisition of valuable skills learned online, and by the sharing of purpose of improving themselves, their mates, and their environment. The right online solution will allow simultaneous, face-to-face interaction with a cohort of similarly-motivated fellow learners, focusing on interactive projects, applying knowledge gained by one’s own interests. People create a common experience, applying the knowledge that interests them to a common goal, developing meaningful relationships with others and with change that they want to see in themselves and in the world. In peer-to-peer feedback, and deep reflection on that feedback and lessons learned, the individual discovers inner motivation for improvement. Learners gain technical skills according to their interests, by their own choice; then, in this online collaborative environment, they practice the soft power skills that employers seek for tomorrow’s economy. If you’d like to join in the conversation about the education system and the future economy, please leave a comment!


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Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.

1 comments on “What do employers want and why is the education system failing them?”

  1. Totally agree Robert. But instead talking about employees we need to take another look at employers. Its not enough to pretend looking for soft skills. A culture and environment is needed to reap in the rewards. Thanks for sharing.

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