Over and over surveys of employers tell us that the skills they most want in new hires who are recent grads are “soft skills” or “executive function” skills. These are things like decision making, problem solving, flexibility, teamwork, written and verbal communication, analysis, synthesis…
That seems like a list that matches pretty well with what we do in humanities classes in higher ed, but there’s often a mismatch when it comes to what we mean and what employers mean by those same terms.
Today, I came face-to-face with a very specific example in the instruction lines for a composition: “Times New Roman, 12 pt. font, 1.25″ margins”
By the time they graduate college, students are so used to highly specific instructions like these that they can become paralyzed in the face of workplace tasks like preparing memos, meeting agendas or simple emails.
Managers in the workplace don’t want to be interrupted to answer questions like these about a task they thought they had clearly delegated to a new hire: “what font should I use?” “how many words should it be?” “what margin size do you want?”
Employers are left scratching their heads, wondering, “how did this person get a four-year degree without being able to use good judgement and make these very minor decisions or solve these very minor problems on their own?”
I know how! We made them insecure! Rendered them paralyzed in the face of the latitude to execute the exact skills employers want: flexibility, good judgement, decision-making, problem-solving.
Will some employers want specifics? Yes! And they will communicate that (this is where the new hire’s important communication skills will come into play).
Without those specific instructions in college, will some students submit compositions in a font size that our middle-aged eyes can’t read or use 44 point font and 3-inch margins to write a one-page essay? Maybe. But something like that is going to happen no matter how many specific instructions we throw at students.
Let’s reserve the instructions for the content we’re teaching while also explicitly urging students to develop the kind of professional skills they’ll need in the workplace.
Here’s what I tell my students: use good judgement, give me a complete answer to that essay prompt. Don’t mess with me by trying to give a cute one-sentence answer or bright red ink, or 4-inch margins–but you know all that already, because you’re going to use good judgement!
Then I tell them, “your first employer will thank you for being the new hire who can independently make good decisions and solve problems; don’t be the new hire who can’t handle a small task like a memo or agenda that has been 100% delegate to you.”
Darcy Lear is a career coach specializing in academic writing, job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. To schedule a campus workshop or for help navigating your career transition, contact Darcy: firstname.lastname@example.org