Tuesday, November 19, 2013

You can't take non-cognitive skills for granted

From Job Outlook 2013 from NACE.

What are employers looking for from prospective new hires? Much of our national education debate focuses on such macro issues as STEM (whether or not we have enough of), Creativity, Critical Thinking, etc. Articles such as The Real Reason New College Grads Can’t Get Hired by Martha C. White and College Grads’ Bad Habits Driving Unemployment by Walter Russell Mead suggest that the challenge is not so much with regard to hard cognitive content as it is about the softer issues which the economist James Heckman refers to as non-cognitive skills. Non-cognitive skills are those pertaining to behavioral attributes such as propensity to show up on time, follow-through on commitments, willingness to work hard, flexibility, trustworthiness, etc. Heckman has done some interesting research on exactly how critical, and under-recognized are the non-cognitive skills.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers conducts an annual survey of businesses and their anticipated hiring needs. Among the questions they ask is one regarding the attributes that employers are seeking. For 2012, the results were:

All sorts of questions regarding the range of attributes that were allowed to be selected from, etc. But given what is in the report, it is interesting to note that of the top most sought after non-cognitive skills, 4 are personality or values related (leadership, teamwork, work ethic and initiative), 2 are communications related (written and verbal), and 2 are general critical thinking/numeracy related (problem solving and quantitative analysis).

There is a lot of energy (and money) invested in education reforms at both the K-12 and university levels but you rarely hear these basics discussed, much less brought into any kind of focus. There is a lot of happy clappy talk about critical thinking but not much of that translates into real world problem solving and quantitative analysis.

You have to take all these such surveys with a grain of salt. There is often some element of self-serving excuse making. But it does comport broadly with what I have seen over the years hiring hundreds of entry level people from the staff consultant level on up. Technical knowledge is nice to have, but if they are bright and hard working that gap can be filled later. What is critical are all those non-cognitive skills of work ethic, diligence, timeliness, etc. Without those, there isn't much of a career.

Sometimes, it seems, as if we lose sight of the fundamentals (non-cognitive skills) while focusing so much on the cognitive ones (grades and test scores).

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