Janet Mizrahi is a continuing lecturer of professional writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is also an author at BizCommBuzz.
Because I taught business communication for nearly two decades, I’m always on the lookout for surveys that name the most-wanted skills employers look for in new grads. I’ve found that while the order of the list varies, the skills do not. Below are the top skills employers want in their new hires and ways you can integrate them into your courses.
The ability to work well in teams, especially with diverse colleagues, is critical in most organizations, so assigning group work in whichever field you teach will help your students develop the skills necessary to collaborate. Here’s the rub: You can’t just sit back and wish the students good luck. You actually have to manage the teams to some degree.
Good teams have characteristics that should be discussed in class, and my experience is that teams work best with 4–5 members. There should be one individual who acts as a facilitator to help keep the group on track, and I’ve found it’s best if the group chooses its own team leader. (A nice plus to this is that employers also seek good leaders—the student who leads a group can emphasize that role on a resume.)
Assign a project that allows students to work independently to contribute to a final project that makes up a significant portion of their grades. Consider having students submit confidential assessments of their group experience in which they detail problems or outstanding experiences, and factor those into their final grades. Meet with teams mid-way through the semester to assess their progress, and step in if you see major inequities in work allocation.
Articulating ideas in writing and while speaking is always one of the top skills employers seek. Employers need staff who can communicate clearly with all stakeholders, so including writing in any college class promotes a valuable and marketable skill. The good thing about including writing in all classes is that doing so promotes another top skill employers want: critical thinking. After all, students cannot write well if they cannot think well!
Consider asking students to write outside of the traditional academic mold for some assignments. Ask them to write emails or short reports using plain language rather than pumped-up academic-ese while providing them with the characteristics of such writing.
If possible, provide opportunities for students to speak in small groups. Emphasize the prep required even when speaking casually, and provide students with how-to lists that cover some of the basics of speaking in groups. Using a slide share program such as PechaKucha, which allows for 20 images that advance after 20 seconds, can help keep student presentations short and sweet.
What employer wouldn’t want an employee who can show sound reasoning to analyze issues, make decisions, and problem solve? Critical thinking includes the ability to obtain, interpret, and use knowledge, facts, and data. I think every college course teaches some aspect of critical thinking; we just need to explain to students that that is what they are doing when they are working on assignments. I find mentioning to students that X assignment is designed to help them improve critical thinking skills—which is also a highly desirable quality employers look for—engages them in the task. Students have jobs on the brain, and appealing to this need is a great way to obtain buy-in for any assignment that requires deep thinking.
One of the biggest myths around college campuses is that our students are “digital natives” who can leverage technology. While it’s true that most of our students have been around technology since they found the remote or grabbed mommy’s smart phone, I have found that many of them are woefully unprepared to use technology to solve problems.
I deal with this by forcing my students to use technology I cannot teach them. This may sound like I’m shirking, but I’ve found that when I don’t have the answers, students are forced to find them. I’ve also assigned students to make group presentations that explain certain apps so classmates can learn by both watching the presentations and doing their own presentations.
While it may seem like extra work on your part to integrate these elements into your area-specific classes, think about it this way—you’re helping your students step into the world as a well-rounded representative of your university. And with the skills you helped build, your students will be more productive members of society.
To hear what other educators are doing to build soft skills in their students in preparation for careers, download our tips sheet.