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Thursday, April 02, 2015

Colleges respond to industry demands for ‘soft skills’ by Jennifer Lewington

"Employers and education providers don’t always see eye to eye on the job readiness of graduates." reports Jennifer Lewington.

“There is a large gap in the perception of preparedness,” says Ali Jaffer, associate principal in the Toronto office of McKinsey and Co., and a contributor to one of its global reports that found employers and postsecondary education institutions at odds over the skills of graduates.

In a 2012 survey by New York-based McKinsey, 75 per cent of education providers said graduates were adequately prepared for entry-level positions in their career field, a view shared by only 42 per cent of employers and 45 per cent of youth. When asked about soft skills, just 49 per cent of employers felt graduates were skilled in written communication compared to 63 per cent of education providers. (A Canadian report with similar themes is expected to be released shortly).

The perception gap is not lost on some Canadian colleges.

“The technical skills that graduates were going into industry with were not enough for employer needs,” says Maureen Loweth, dean of the Centre for Business at George Brown College, which surveyed Toronto-area employers last year. “Soft skills, or people skills as they are often referred to, are also needed to a higher degree of competency.”

Soft skills training already exists in its curriculum, but last fall George Brown piloted a new course devoted to nurturing communication, team work, customer service and problem-solving.

“We decided we wanted to generate more curriculum and extracurricular content and activities for students,” says Ms. Loweth, of the new course to be offered this fall.

Mike Fenton, chair of an industry advisory committee for the college’s school of marketing, welcomes the expanded offering.

“The technical skills are getting better and better in terms of what is being taught, becoming more targeted to specific industries and jobs, but the soft skills, the people skills, how to work with people traditionally have been left to the side,” says Mr. Fenton, a former George Brown instructor and current executive director of Macedonia 2025, a trade promotion organization.

“Speaking from a business standpoint, relationship skills are so important no matter what sector you are in – legal, accounting, sales and marketing,” he adds. “At the end of the day, [according to] the old business adage, you do business with the people you like to do business with.”

Other colleges are raising the profile of soft skills through collaborations with employers.

Vancouver’s British Columbia Institute of Technology and SAP Canada recently worked with a local high school to develop a course with real-life projects to teach students about team work, critical thinking and job readiness.

“They [officials at SAP Canada] want people to be numerate, to be able to present well, communicate and write,” says Robin Hemmingsen, dean of BCIT’s business school.

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