Mixed Signals: Do College Graduates Have the Soft Skills That Employers Want?

Author:Stewart, Carol


Entering the job market as a new college graduate is a daunting yet exciting prospect. Fresh from the higher-education buffet of learning, college grads seek employment opportunities to capitalize upon their academic knowledge and inherent talents. Even those with lingering doubts as to their true professional calling tend to believe they "have what it takes" upon graduating to succeed in the global market. Employers have a different perspective: The majority of college graduates are confident in the level of their abilities, while in reality their skills fall short of employer expectations.

Recent studies reflect this dichotomy of evaluation. College graduates are highly confident of their abilities in both traditional "hard" and "soft" skill areas (Twenge, Campbell, & Gentile, 2012). Employers, on the other hand, are increasingly frustrated at what they see as a growing problem with graduates' soft skills, or rather, lack thereof (St. Louis Community College & Workforce Solutions Group, 2013). Soft skills--those non-technical competencies associated with one's personality, attitude, and ability to interact effectively with others (i.e., to be optimally employable)--are believed to be as valuable in the workplace as hard skills--technical, tangible, measurable competencies. Soft skills' interpersonal relations focus is especially important in our global marketplace (Nunn, 2013), where sensitivity to potential individual and/or collective diversity can tip the scale toward being hired or passed over. Despite college graduates' belief in the strength of their abilities, however, employers report a dearth of basic soft skills such as communication, critical thinking, and problem solving within this very group of potential job candidates (Hart Research Associates, 2015).

What accounts for this disconnect of perception, this "gap" between college graduate and employer perspectives? Acknowledging the gap leads to further reflection: Do college graduates understand the soft skills employers seek? What method or 'yardstick' is used for self-evaluation of these competencies? Are colleges providing adequate opportunity to learn and develop soft skills? Do employers appropriately recruit for these desired skills? These questions, along with many others, can help clarify the origin of the perceived soft skills gap and how to address it.

To get to the root cause, we need to first determine what employers consider to be top soft skills. Research shows use of varied terminology, with most skills falling into broad categories of communication, interpersonal relationships, professionalism, teamwork, problem-solving/critical-thinking, ethical behavior, flexibility, leadership, and diversity awareness/sensitivity. These soft skills, and/or subsets of these skills, are deemed essential for professional success and so should appear alongside required hard skills, education, and other relevant candidate qualifications.

In this paper, we explore the soft skills considered most valuable in today's job market, as well as the level of preparedness in recent college graduates, from the perspective of both employer and college student.


As previously mentioned, soft skills are non-technical, applied skills that employees are expected to possess and are oftentimes difficult to measure. Soft skills such as communication, problem solving, and critical thinking are important skills to have in any industry but are especially important in a global environment. With advances in technology and the ever-changing scope of business competition, the need for soft skill sets has changed (Deepa & Seth, 2013). Employers are looking for people with a cross-cultural literacy with experience in areas such as global awareness, communication, economics and the knowledge of the cost of doing business globally (Gore, 2013).

Most soft skills cannot be learned in a classroom setting or by reading a textbook. People learn soft skills by doing them. Managers need to learn how to manage competencies and the most cost-effective way is through soft skills development...

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