Soft skills for a new graduate: Which ones are Important And to whom?

Facing the realities of increased education costs, competitive job markets, and new demands of the 21st century, universities are exploring how they can revitalize education and make their graduates more competitive in the workforce.

Facing the realities of increased education costs, competitive job markets, and new demands of the 21st century, universities are exploring how they can revitalize education and make their graduates more competitive in the workforce.

Today’s employers are looking for skills beyond discipline, knowledge and technical acumen. The study explores the ranking (using a forcerank response system) of soft skills (seven clusters with seven characteristics each), such as communication, listening effectively, cross-disciplinary experiences, working well under pressure, ability to self-start and leadership.

The soft skill priorities are compared to identify where students, faculty, alumni and employers in Landscape Architecture and allied professions (n=1,036) agree or differ. The data is a subset of a larger study with over 8,000 respondents in Agriculture and Natural Resource disciplines from all 50 states and 31 Land-grant Universities. Mean scores are used to identify rankings of soft skills, and ordinal regression is used to identify significant differences between the stakeholder groups.

Employers Ranking of Soft Skill Priorities

  1. Communication.
  2. Self-management.
  3. Teamwork.
  4. Decision-making/problem-solving.
  5. Experiences.
  6. Professionalism.
  7. Leadership.

The soft skill clusters can be seen as a spectrum, with the top priorities being the basic building blocks. For example, Communication is a foundational skill for work. Self-management is then the ability to work without explicit directions and monitoring, building towards working with others in teams. With development of personal and team skills, then Decision-making and Problem-solving in the workplace become viable roles for a new employee.

The value of Experiences is influenced by the development of the previous skills. Experiences, such as internships or study abroad, may not have the impacts needed to foster learning and professional development if basic communication or decision-making skills have not been developed. The last two, Professionalism and Leadership, are then higher-order skill sets, which are possible because of the foundational skills.

For soft skill clusters at the entry level of the spectrum (Communication, Self-management, Teamwork and Decision-making), all of the significant differences with students are with the students valuing the skill lower than faculty, alumni and employers. As a cautionary note, because employers ranked Communication as number one doesn’t mean new graduates don’t have these skills; it just says this is their top-priority soft skill when looking at new hires.

Students place significantly higher emphasis on the other end of the spectrum (Experiences, Professionalism and Leadership) and not the foundational end of the spectrum.

There can be a host of explanations for the students’ emphasis on the upper end of the spectrum. Some may be from generational norms or trends, such as organized youth sports and activities where their activities are organized for them and they don’t realize skills are missing, inflated expectations of entry level employment, the plethora of unit or university “leadership” events, to the influences of web 2.0 on what is considered ‘valid’ knowledge, or appropriate communication and social interaction.

For whatever the reason, exploring the disconnect is important. Employers are looking for base skills first, while students may be seeking leadership and other experiences more than the base skills.

Recent Graduates' Ranking of Job Selection Attributes

  • Geographic Location: 31%.
  • Organization Type: 28%.
  • Organization Specialties: 22%.
  • Organization Reputation: 20%.
  • Position Description: 16%.
  • Starting Salary: 11%.

Significant Findings

Include the following:

  1. All of the stakeholder groups agree Communication is the most important soft skill. Employers value listening as the top Communication characteristic. Faculty place a higher value on written skills, while Employers emphasize oral communication skills.
  2. Employers place a higher value on the interpersonal skills, which are developed through Teamwork, while the Faculty place a higher value on critical thinking skills, which are developed through problem identification and decision-making processes.
  3. Students underestimate the importance of self-starting and that having a positive attitude is an important attribute in the work environment.

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