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Addressing the Skills Gap for Higher Education Grads 

  • 5 MIN READ

What skills are most valued by employers hiring postsecondary grads, and are institutions helping their students learn them?

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Most postsecondary programs are tailored to a niche. Some skills, like communication or writing, are explored more broadly across all disciplines, but most programs tend to focus on a specific, hard skill set toward the third and fourth years of study. 

Students become experts in their field, but at what cost? New research has shown that many human resources (HR) professionals would rather hire somebody with better soft skills, but these are not often seen in recent postsecondary grads.  

Let’s take a look at the difference between soft and hard skills and how they can help and/or hinder the skills gap in higher education. 

What Are Soft Skills? 

Soft or durable skills are core skills that can be transferred between different workplaces and situations. They’re evergreen, foundational skills that make an individual more adaptable, cooperative and resilient.  

Examples of soft skills can include: 

  • communication 
  • analysis 
  • agility 
  • problem solving 
  • active listening 

These skills can be used in different workplace situations, making users more adaptable and able to function at a higher level than those without. 

What Are Hard Skills? 

Hard or dynamic skills are more technical or specialized skills that are usually closely related to a specific job. Since they’re tailored to a role, they lead to job success but need to be updated often and are less transferable between workplaces. 

Many two-year college programs are very technical and set graduates up to be experts in a specific field and master hard skills related to it. 

Similarly to two-year programs, the hands-on experiences—like labs or tutorials—that many students have working toward a four-year degree can develop hard skills related to their program. 

The Skills Gap in Higher Education 

In May 2021, a Mursion study of 400 college grads and over 400 HR professionals indicated that people skills are in demand but lacking. 

The research found almost half of the HR reps said they would hire somebody with stronger people skills over better hard skills.  

Teamwork and collaboration were the most favored people skills—chosen by 65% of respondents—40% of who also thought these skills were lacking in new hires. 

What could be the most important finding from this research is where respondents thought the responsibility fell to get recent grads up-to-speed with these soft skills. Ninety-three percent of grads and 74% of HR professionals thought the onus fell to higher ed to provide more opportunities for students to practice these valuable people skills. 

If students aren’t given opportunities to develop soft skills—through job placements, group work or collaborative discussion with their peers—graduates may not stand out when applying for jobs, lowering the value of a higher education degree.  

How to Incorporate Soft Skills in Higher Education 

There are several ways higher education institutions can help graduates ensure they’re leaving with the right soft skills to help them get hired. Here are a few examples of how to build soft skills in higher ed and help close the skills gap for recent grads. 

Experiential or Work-Integrated Learning 

Giving students a chance to gain valuable work experience while still in school is one way to help build up their portfolio of soft skills. One way to do this is through experiential or work-integrated learning—giving students the chance to put their theory to the test in an actual workplace related to their field of study. 

These programs help students learn what it’s like to function in an actual workplace, allowing them to develop the people and communication skills needed to be a desired applicant and colleague. 

Group Work 

While it might not be your students’ favorite way to work, having them work together in a group setting is one way to improve their soft skills. 

By combining different personalities and opinions, students will get first-hand experience of how to effectively use people skills when working with peers who have different working styles from them. 

After the group work is done, it could be beneficial to reflect with the class on what it was like to work with different people, and how these experiences relate to the workplace. 

Blended Learning 

Incorporating blended learning—a thoughtful mix of online and in-person instruction—into a course is another way instructors can promote people skills among students. 

Many LMSs have discussion boards that instructors can use to help facilitate discussions and debates among students. Having a safe space for students to convey their opinions will help them to develop the people skills needed to effectively learn to interact with their peers. 

An LMS like D2L Brightspace also has a video assignment feature that helps students work on their communication skills. In the video assignment tool, students can record themselves presenting, have their audio automatically transcribed and receive targeted feedback provided by the artificial intelligence built into the system. This feedback will help to improve a student’s communication by sharing insights on items like: 

  • clarity of speech 
  • use of filler words 
  • speaking pace 

Encouraging instructors to use blended learning in their courses provides students with additional, innovative ways to practice their people skills. 

Closing the Skills Gap for Higher Education Grads 

The skills gap seen in higher ed graduates won’t be closed overnight. By having institutions take the time to research and try new approaches to bolster students’ portfolios of soft skills, they’ll be given a better chance at being hirable after graduation.  

For younger generations who are more interested in landing a career after college, focusing on making sure they have the right skills to get a job after graduating is one way to reinforce the value of higher education.