Guest Contributors

Critical Thinking Must Complement Quantitative Skills

My favorite radio program in Boston is a Sunday morning show called Breakfast with the Beatles. Besides the music, I enjoy how the host shares with listeners the back stories on how songs were written. For instance, the song Hello, Goodbye was composed as John Lennon and Paul McCartney played a word game one day where Lennon would say one word and McCartney would say the opposite.

America will need many more public-private partnerships like P-TECH
if we hope to prepare our children for the demands of the “hard” and “soft” skills needed in the rapidly evolving global workforce.

I thought of the origins of the song as I composed this post on the “hard” and “soft” challenges facing the future American workforce. It is well documented that American students are not doing well in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) disciplines. More than 60 percent of American eighth graders are “less than proficient” in math and science. According to the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test – among the world’s most respected examinations administered by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – American teenagers rank 14th in reading competency, 22nd in science and 33rd in mathematics by the time they reach age 15.

While I certainly worry about the troubling performance by America’s youth in the quantifiable or “hard” subjects of math and science, what frankly worries me more is their lack of mastery of the non-quantifiable or “soft” skills.

I reviewed scores of research reports on “soft skills” while writing my latest book, and by far the best document I unearthed to define the term was Future Work Skills 2020, a 2011 report from the Institute for the Future. The report, done in collaboration with the University of Phoenix, identified the following 10 soft skills:

  • Novel and Adaptive Thinking – the ability to think and develop solutions beyond what is rote or rule-based;
  • Social Intelligence – the ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way;
  • Design Mindset – the ability to work processes for desired outcomes;
  • Cognitive Load Management – the ability to discriminate and filter information for importance;
  • Cross-Cultural Competency – the ability to operate in different cultural settings;
  • Sense-Making – the ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance in what is being expressed;
  • Virtual Collaboration – the ability to work productively as a member of a virtual team;
  • “Transdisciplinarity” – the ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines;
  • New Media Literacy – the ability to critically assess and develop content using new media forms; and
  • Computational Thinking – the ability to translate vast amounts of data.

There’s more. FTI Consulting surveyed more than 1,000 hiring managers nationwide and asked them to rank the importance of each of the 10 soft skills along with recent job applicants’ competencies in them. Managers ranked “Novel and Adaptive Thinking”, “Social Intelligence” and “Design Mindset” as the three most in-demand skills in their organizations. But these same managers also noted an average 19 point discrepancy between the importance of these soft skills and job-applicant competence in them.

Meanwhile, 12 million Americans are unemployed and 10 million more are underemployed while nearly four million job vacancies exist throughout our economy. I’ve asked many senior executives why there are so many unfilled positions while so many cannot find work, and the reply that often comes back is that many job applicants’ soft skills are either weak or non-existent. If we’re serious about preparing our young people for productive and successful futures, we must ensure that their education includes critical thinking and other soft skills along with quantitative and technical training.

One of my favorite Chinese proverbs is: “If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want 10 years of prosperity, grow a tree. If you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people.” I was pleased to write about IBM’s efforts to help “grow people” in my book – especially the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) initiative that is scaling nationally. President Obama made a direct reference to P-TECH in his 2013 State of the Union address.

America will need many more public-private partnerships like P-TECH if we hope to prepare our children for the demands of the “hard” and “soft” skills needed in the rapidly evolving global workforce. And that’s hardly an easy task.

Gary J. Beach is the author of The U.S. Technology Skills Gap: What Every IT Executive Needs to Know to Save America’s Future (John Wiley & Sons, 2013). Mr. Beach is the publisher emeritus of CIO Magazine.

Related Resources:

President Praises P-TECH in State of the Union Address

P-TECH: Where We Are Now

Inspiring Our Children to Live Their Dreams

STEM Pathways to College and Careers Schools: A Development Guide

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