Employers lament lack of soft skills in graduates

It is widely documented that the relationship between higher education institutions and students has moved away from the traditional scholarly one and towards a more consumer based one. This requires institutions to adjust their approach in order to meet the needs of their students – that means ensuring they have the skills necessary to find jobs when they graduate.

This is even more crucial in Vietnam where employers have for too long complained about a lack of soft skills among university graduates.

Importance of soft skills

There are a number of reasons why university graduates need to be competent and efficient at soft skills, dating back to 1986 when Vietnam started Doi Moi, or the Renovation process.

Since then Vietnam has increasingly integrated into the global market, for instance, becoming a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, in 1995 and the World Trade Organization in 2007. As a result the domestic economy has needed to reform in response to the global competitive market.

Instead of requiring loyalty, hard work and obedience within a centrally planned economy, as in the past, employers now require graduates to understand a foreign language (especially English), to have good communication skills, teamwork and personal skills and to demonstrate such characteristics as taking initiative and being proactive.

Quality of university graduates

Emanuela di Gropello, an economics expert in the human development department of the World Bank’s East Asia and Pacific region, comments: “Higher education in Vietnam has made significant progress. However, it still needs improvement in training and providing students with soft skills and in cooperating with research institutes and especially workplaces.”

Tran Trong Thanh, chairman of one of the biggest companies in Vietnam, Vinapo Inc, says 90% of Vietnamese graduates do not possess the soft skills necessary for work and that this is one of the most important reasons why every year there are more than 400,000 university graduates who fail to get a job.

In general, employers are not positive about students’ soft skills. One employer complained that "the life skills of all students are weak". Vietnamese employers tend to use the words ‘soft skills’ and ‘life skills’ interchangeably, but Vietnamese students who live in a collectivist society may be competent with 'life skills'. The problem is that because these are not professionally organised they cannot use them in the contemporary workplace where skills like critical thinking, presentation or decision-making are needed.

Vietnamese university graduates tend to be underprepared, lack practical and professional knowledge and lack the necessary skills required in today’s workplaces.

Students’ perception about soft skills

Although the pressure for change comes from employers, in the third year of university students have a probationary period in companies before official graduation, after which they realise the importance of soft skills and that universities are not equipping them sufficiently with such skills.

Moreover, a lot of first- or second-year students are becoming aware of the importance of soft skills as they are told by workers, especially those who are working for foreign enterprises based in Vietnam, that they are important.

According to surveys, students consider generic skills critical because employers are assumed to value them. Students also believe that companies require new employees to have both good professional knowledge and skills that match job requirements. They list important generic skills such as teamwork, communication skills, planning, independent working skills, presentation skills and decision-making skills.

Most students and graduates complain that they are not sufficiently equipped in these soft skills at their universities. They say: "We do not learn anything about soft skills" or "We are not taught about soft skills". Some of them admit: "We do not have any soft skill subjects on the curriculum in our universities" or "Our universities should teach us soft skills, but they don’t".

Others feel that there are insufficient activities provided by their universities to develop these skills. One student said: “My university does not have activities to help students develop skills. We have to take responsibility for career development and professional preparation ourselves. It is very rare for teachers to get involved in career development issues for students.”

What is the universities' response?

There are a number of factors that hinder development of students’ soft skills at Vietnamese universities. The teaching methods employed in higher education institutions have been criticised as being quite traditional, dominated by rote learning – that is, memorisation and reproduction of information provided in a lecture format.

The main duty of students in many universities is still to sit quietly in classes, taking notes from whatever the teacher says. They then re-learn this information at home and reproduce the information in assignments and examinations.

Skills development is a big challenge for Vietnamese universities, but it is becoming increasingly urgent. The problem is growing bigger as Vietnamese universities fail to engage sufficiently with what employers want, meaning they find it hard to decide which skills they should teach.

What can universities do?

It may be difficult at first, but attempts should be made to address the situation. The curriculum needs to be reduced and updated and assessment processes need to be streamlined to introduce more practical, professional-based knowledge designed to reduce students’ struggles to move from higher education to employment.

Teaching methodology, assessment design and the organisation of in-class and extracurricular activities also need to change to help students become more autonomous, critical, interactive and effective learners so that they are in a better position to meet the needs of the contemporary market.

Dr Thanh Nguyen is a senior lecturer at the education faculty and deputy head of the department of science management and international relations at Tan Trao University, Vietnam. He is an editor and reviewer of several journals of education. La Trobe University gave him an award in recognition of his continuous outstanding academic achievement and exemplary community service contributions in 2011, and in recognition of participation in and contributions to the Vietnamese students’ community services and the enhancement of the relationship between the university and Vietnamese authorities in 2012. His publications can be found in this profile.