What’s one thing that most growing occupations have in common? They require high levels of social skills. A recent New York Times article highlighted this trend, noting that “skills like cooperation, empathy and flexibility have become increasingly vital in modern-day work.” The article included a telling chart:
It’s clear that social skills are an important characteristic of our modern workforce, and most individuals will need them in order to compete for career opportunities. Even as our education and training systems seek to teach and hone those skills, questions remain about how social skills are evaluated by the labor market. Who decides what social skills are, and how can an employer tell if someone has them or doesn’t? It’s likely that the definition and measurement of social skills are subjectively determined, which means employers searching for good social skills must be wary of unconscious bias. A candidate with a different background from the typical employee of a given company may not be perceived to have the same level of social skills as someone whom the employer finds relatable.
The power of unconscious bias in skewing our perception of subjectively defined skills is seen in a recent study: academic fields that prioritize brilliance and raw talent tend to have lots of white men in them, while fields that emphasize the importance of hard work tend to have larger percentages of women and people of color. Women make up less than a third of PhDs in economics and philosophy, and 20 percent or less of PhDs in physics and computer science. Unconscious bias influences who we think of as brilliant and talented—if you don’t look like the typical applicant, then the employer may not be as able to see your unique talent.
Our educational pathways shouldn’t be designed to focus too specifically on one career or occupation. While a combination of real-time job-opening data and labor market projections can help target programmatic offerings, unpredictable innovations and macroeconomic trends still cause a lot of uncertainty. Students deserve a strong return on investment from their educational program, but we also need to make sure we do not develop parallel systems of higher education for students based on socioeconomic background: adaptable skills for the affluent to compete in an ever-changing knowledge economy, and narrow skills for low- and moderate-income students to get a technical job right now. Students need flexible skills that will allow them to compete in an unpredictable future labor market. Even as we prepare students who do not have the luxury of exploration for entry into the workforce—students who need the economic boost of a credential, and as soon as possible—we can make sure their education has long-term value.