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We need to start giving soft skills more credit

National skills and experience strategy, AI and machine learning may help to quantify 'soft skills'


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In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians are retiring or are being laid off in greater numbers and taking their much-needed skills and experience out of the workforce. At the same time, many others are facing career disruptions and have had to quickly retool just to survive.

As we work towards a long-term economic recovery, policy makers and postsecondary institutions need to ensure younger learners and mid-career professionals are acquiring the right mix of skills for the future.  Often forgotten in the discussion around skills development are the critical ‘soft skills’ that are essential to every workplace and much sought-after by employers.

It’s time for a national skills and experience strategy that includes a framework to credit soft skills in order to better address skills gaps across the country and prepare students for jobs of the future.

What are ‘soft skills’?

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Soft skills are non-technical, developed capacities that an individual must have to be effective in a job. Unlike technical skills, soft skills traditionally lack a crediting framework due to the difficulty in quantifying them. Employment and Social Development Canada’s pan-Canadian skills taxonomy, which describes hundreds of skills and competencies, includes examples of soft skills such as social perceptiveness or emotional intelligence, communication, critical thinking and problem solving.

A recruitment shift is underway where employers are emphasizing “fit,” asking job candidates about their ability to work in diverse teams and changing environments.

Currently, many employers are spending significant time, energy and resources re-building individuals’ skillsets, changing their mindsets and fostering a culture teamwork. Such ‘soft’ skills and experiences should be table stakes for students who graduate from Canadian postsecondary institutions.

The federal Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, Carla Qualtrough, should introduce a formal measuring and recognizing of skills – including soft skills — that learners acquire during their postsecondary studies.

It is time for the Minister to act as the driver and invite academic institutions and industry to come together and create a universal framework starting with a common language of definitions and an accepted method to measure these skills. Only then can our academic institutions and employers plan more effectively to allocate critical skills needed to ensure short-term economic recovery from the pandemic and long-term Canadian prosperity.

Without an objective measure to quantify the skills demanded by labor markets, postsecondary institutions cannot accurately assess demand for critical skills.

A team at Seneca has started to investigate using AI and machine-learning techniques to quantify both technical and soft skills acquired across its programs. The goal is to discover soft skills gaps and create soft skills pathways between programs. The work also explores the probability of job disruption due to computerization and generates actionable intelligence to identify soft skill gaps. The methodology uses Employment and Social Development Canada’s standard pan-Canadian skills taxonomy and is one example of how to establish a common measure of soft skills that can be used across academic institutions and industries.

Part of the necessary shift is thinking about traditional postsecondary programs in a non-traditional way; that is, looking at the underlying skills and experiences within an academic program, quantifying these, and aligning them to job classification systems. This approach allows someone to not only bring their resume to a job interview but also provide a prospective employer with a tangible list of skills and work experience that relate to a specific position.

A national skills and experience strategy would provide a common catalogue from which postsecondary educators could build curricula and students would graduate with foundational skills and literacies that are clearly articulated for employers to assess.

When a learner graduates, there is no formal record of them ever acquiring these sought-after skills, along with their formal credential. Without a measure to quantify the amount of skills acquired by learners, labor markets cannot gauge the supply of these skills from academic institutions. The market for transferable skills remains opaque. This ultimately limits our ability to address skills gaps across sectors in a changing, struggling economy – during and after the pandemic.

The systematic inability to formally articulate, teach and recognize soft skill drastically hampers shifts we need to make to develop and recognize human capital in the 21st century.

Keith Monrose is the executive director of Seneca International at Seneca College. Maurice Chang is partner and co-founder of Digital Shift.