The need to foster soft skills in schools

Last Updated 19 March 2014, 16:09 IST

ARTICULATE With the growth in the service sector industry, mainly through IT help centres and service centres, there is a push to provide training in soft skills, writes Bala Ajjampur

To foster any basic educative environment a certain basic infrastructure is assumed to be there. This  is provided through schools designed to educate a large population with certain teacher-to-learner ratios in mind.  Schools are regarded as the place to  get educated through a set curriculum.

To ascertain certain level of learning, tests are administered by teachers, often designed by school boards. Prior to this  either parents or certain kinder-level playhouses develop a certain level of reading and writing skills in the child as a preparation to receive a basic level of education. Precluding reading or writing skills, a set of good communication skills from those administering it helps the child to understand the evolving world. It is equally important to administer the skills through the language of preference, to let them take root, before a formal education can begin.

For many, all these things seem to happen magically and routinely down a set path of attending schools to acquire education. 
Education and Skill 
Both are equally important areas needing development. Which one should come first may or may not be important. One premise is that education should come before a skill is developed, and the other is that skills should be nurtured before a formal education begins.  Some skills are picked up just by observing without a formal education, some skills by practice, and some others with a combination of gate-keeper skills.

However there are skills, like problem-solving skills, which do need formal education. From this, many questions arise. For example, do we pick up some skills implicitly while getting educated? It may be argued that by studying many diverse subjects, critical thinking skills may gradually develop without getting any sort of formal training. If so, does the right kind of education develop many skills as an implicit by-product? To answer such interesting questions, it is necessary to delve into the skill development environment.

To foster a skill development environment, beyond the basic skills of reading and writing, the environment may need; guidance, tools to work with, practice, patience and persistence. It can get complicated. If we compare achieving education and skills at the very basic levels, the time taken to master in their respective areas would require an environment of a different nature and nurturing.

While skills can be categorized as hard and soft skills, there is no such thing for education. Hard skills need to use the physical body and/or set of tools to master the skills. Soft skills development is more of a brain activity, where thinking is needed and nurtured individually and in groups, to master.

Education is driven by a need towards equipping learners with a higher degree of learning - by being able to solve, design, or implement simple or complex solutions in any environment. Many useful years of a person is lost to get a degree, just to get into the workforce where most of that higher learning is either not needed or not made use of. More often than not, proper training to develop certain skills required in those areas may be obtained just after middle or high school, saving years in studying subjects of no usefulness to the work being performed.
Higher education if essential if the intent is academic or research in nature. If not, the best thing would be to fork into vocational training to master the skills necessary to perform work specific to the industry being pursued.

Many businesses operate within an industry sector. Some of these businesses need education and others just need the skills essential to carry out a specific task. The businesses engaged in the service industry may need more of soft skills coupled with education in technology, science or engineering to support the services that are offered. Every business entity will have an orientation program to acquaint college recruits to the work environment.. Often the work environment is defined by the business landscape within which it operates.

However, if the orientation can bring to forefront certain essential differences between educational environment and business environment, the training may become more targeted, meaningful and result oriented.

While counsellors play an important role in directing the education that one receives towards achieving a desired educational goal, the policy makers direct the work performed by the employee towards a business goal.

The learner shapes his learning within the realms of the guidance received, while an employee will be performing work within the realms of the policy set forth by the business entity.

While learning at advanced levels or at honor levels add the value to learning, the value-added services provided by an employee adds value to the work performed by the business entity. These are often recognized as an employee going beyond what the job calls for.

While learning is continuous with many connections made to many different knowledge areas, the work performed is more or less systematized. Learning can be viewed as on-going while the work performed will often get augmented with new initiatives on a regular basis.
As many skills are acquired on the job while performing the work, the nature of skill acquired is different from the nature of education that is acquired.

Although education is more oriented towards knowledge acquisition from different knowledge areas over time, the skill development is more oriented towards skill maintenance or sharpening the same skill over time. With growth in the services industry, mainly through IT help centres and service centres, there is a push to provide training in soft skills within the realms of skill development.

While the highly educated are sought after for hiring, the skilled are sought after for their training acquired over their skill-development period. It should be understood that skill-development is a continuous exercise.

The skills acquired help produce the tools to speed up the work, and in turn the tools developed would need new sets of skills to be acquired for training.

Since the recent push into the service industry accentuated the need for soft skills development, it is necessary to understand what we really mean by them. They can be any of the following broad categories with specific intent for growth under each category:
Attitudes and personal Characteristics (positive attitude, good work ethic, adaptability and ability to accept ambiguity)
Essential skills (computer skills, interpersonal skills)
Integrative-applied skills (critical thinking, presentation skills)
Premium skills (systems thinking, negotiation skills, supervisory skills )
(Published 19 March 2014, 16:09 IST)

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