Soft, smart skills key to graduates’ workplace success

The emerging technologies in today’s world have opened new and innovative opportunities in employment. Therefore, fresh graduates need to stay abreast with the ever-changing digital world. The question is, do they possess the essential skills demanded by employers?

Surveys, such as the Talentbank Survey have shown that many employers were dissatisfied with the fresh graduates’ performance in the workforce as they failed to have mastered 21st-century skills.

The employers have reiterated that fresh graduates will not be able to cope or find employment in these competitive industries if they are unwilling to upskill.

The saddest part is that tertiary institutions were blamed for graduates’ failure to perform in today’s employment arena. Many employers highlighted that, during their tenure as undergraduates, graduates were not equipped with sufficient critical skills as demanded by the labour market.

Concerned with the current scenario, stakeholders have insisted that higher educational institutions identify crucial skills to be reinforced in their syllabi to mould university students for the future workforce.

HEIs should cultivate 21st-century skills

Based on today’s labour needs, skills development has become a crucial criterion if higher education learners are to meet the current and future employability demands, including in low-income areas such as Africa.

Hence, higher education institutions (HEI) in Africa have become a platform for identifying and refining students’ talents and skills, which would help them build their identity and strength. Young people’s performance at work could uplift an entire society and boost a country’s economy.

To turn these objectives into realisation, UNESCO has called for HEI to prepare learners with 21st-century skills which encompass learning skills (criticality, creativity, collaboration and communication), literacy skills (information, media and technology), and life skills (flexibility, leadership, initiative, productivity, and social skills). The Fourth Industrial Revolution necessitates these skills to enable future employees (and employers) to be productive in the workplace.

It is important to highlight that 21st-century skills cover soft and smart skills. Soft skills, better known as employability skills, help individuals succeed in the workplace.

Soft skills mainly comprise learning and life skills that enable employees to respond to any situation wisely and interact with people effectively. In contrast, smart skills or literacy skills consist of spatial, mathematical, analogical, reading, and technological skills crucial to the development of an individual’s career and life.

However, the gap between the demands of skills from the job market and the training that students acquire at higher learning institutions has a significant impact.

According to previous studies, the mismatch between students’ abilities and the demands from the labour market has resulted in insecurities in the workplace. Eventually, many graduates do not retain their jobs due to poor work performance. Unfortunately, it has caused stakeholders to question the quality of higher education.

COVID-19 added to the problem

According to the World Development Report (WDR 2018), more than 60% of working adults in Ghana and Kenya could not infer a simple reading text.

In addition, the report highlighted that, at the time, there had been a considerable number of over-skilled and under-skilled workers in jobs, which has led to the mismatch between fresh graduates’ acquired skills and labour market needs.

The scenario worsened when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world. The sudden announcement of a movement control order, or MCO, resulted in the closure of all academic sectors. Furthermore, the African HEI grappled with huge challenges preparing learners for the workplace when they were forced to convert face-to-face to remote learning.

However, UNESCO reported that not everyone had the privilege of enjoying learning continuity during the pandemic. In Sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 90% of learners do not have computer access, and around 80% have poor internet access. Moreover, almost half of Sub-Saharan African learners live in a condition where mobile networks are not accessible.

Looking into the plights and predicaments that most African countries have gone through, it becomes essential for learners to take responsibility for their own learning.

Instead of blaming one another for the unprecedented disruption in the learning process, it is high time for both higher education learners and the government to take the initiative to explore, think out of the box, be creative and collaborate as a stepping stone to the future workforce.

Therefore, soft skills and smart skills are precisely the abilities that these students need to meet the demands of the future job market, also in times of crisis. In fact, today’s crises have made it even more challenging for graduates to secure a decent job.

Graduates should have soft and smart skills

Preparing learners with soft skills such as creativity, criticality, collaboration, communication, flexibility and leadership skills, and smart skills, namely analogical and digital skills, will allow them to solve a problem and make decisions in any situation.

Richard Riley, a former US secretary of education, said: “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.” This famous quote has become an alarming call for all stakeholders in preparing learners.

In the light of Riley’s words, we want a student who can take a bold step, think quickly, beyond, and efficiently to help their organisation, society and country in times of distress such as pandemics, economic crises and technological disruptions.

Therefore, creativity, criticality, collaboration, communication, flexibility, leadership, analogical, and digital skills are vital for fresh graduates to make career and life decisions. These skills are potential agents that help learners face any challenge they might encounter in a more humane and professional manner.

Creative and critical thinking skills are higher-order skills. Creativity refers to divergent thinking, while criticality is known as convergent thinking. Many studies advocate that creative and critical thinking skills are intertwined, and part and parcel of making decisions and solving problems.

Creative thinking skills help learners to be more flexible, come up with original or novel ideas, and be able to elaborate on new notions. On the other hand, developing critical thinking skills allows learners to analyse, synthesise, interpret and evaluate existing ideas.

The integration of creativity and criticality increases learners’ knowledge and expertise, which eventually will boost their self-confidence levels.

Today, most employers seek fresh graduates with this integrated skill to develop their companies or industries. They look for learners who can reflect, and evaluate challenges and opportunities to make the best decision for organisations to hit their goals.

HEI must apply relevant progressive approaches to increase learners’ creative and critical thinking skills as many employers lament that today’s fresh graduates are well qualified academically but, sadly, they are not equipped with sufficient higher-order thinking skills. This must change immediately.

Many graduates struggle to write, speak and engage

Communication is another crucial skill that tertiary institutions must focus on in preparing learners for future employment. Effective communication is needed for the expansion of knowledge and ideas. Hence, meaningful interaction with educators and peers will stimulate knowledge sharing, motivation, and the construction of new ideas.

The World Bank report (2022) has shown that Sub-Saharan African countries have the highest unemployment rate. One of the major reasons for the high unemployment rate among fresh graduates is poor communication skills.

Employers have expressed their concern over the fact that most fresh graduates cannot write an efficient e-mail or report. The young employees also tend to struggle to deliver an effective presentation or converse with clients during meetings.

When these graduates are unable to create a connection and earn the clients’ confidence and trust, it would impact the business. This could result in companies losing their customers, partners and profits, which would eventually affect the country’s economic growth.

Comprehensive communication, either in spoken or written form, is a tool for professional networking and decision-making. Higher education learners should be trained to master communication skills so that they can perform well in authentic situations. Encouraging collaboration skills among learners is vital for them to be good team players, enjoy a sense of belonging and grow professionally.

Leadership skills will boost confidence

Leadership and flexibility skills are prominent and in high demand in an increasingly competitive world. Leadership skills are essential to make bold decisions, adapt in an ever-challenging environment, build strong teams, delegate efficiently, and help others to grow beyond their limitations.

It is essential to note that leadership skills are not inborn but acquired and part of upskilling. Therefore, educators must focus on cultivating this skill in the classroom and beyond. Leadership skills can be taught by shaping learners who are good listeners, motivators, open-minded and optimistic. Strong leadership skills are an asset in today’s workforce.

Good leaders can face any issues at stake as they can be flexible when the situation demands it, being a driving force and getting tough tasks done.

Being flexible at the workplace simply means adapting to a new or transformed environment in terms of, among others, technology, culture, and people. This skill will prepare graduates to adapt quickly to real-world situations such as working under pressure with minimum supervision, performing tasks beyond the core jobs, and managing unexpected tasks or working conditions. Learning to be flexible reduces stress and increases job satisfaction.

Graduates and teachers should be tech savvy

Smart skills should be introduced at pre-school already. One of the most important smart skills is analogical thinking. It enables learners to observe and analyse a situation or task from various angles before making a quick and efficient decision.

In other words, an analogy is a hallmark of heuristic behaviour. It helps learners investigate probabilities, differences and similarities of scenarios or dilemmas before making judgments.

It is also important to prepare learners to be tech-savvy due to the world’s increasing dependence on technological advancement. Managing technology such as big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence and virtual reality is paramount to retaining a job and a surge in career.

Since technology in the workforce creates new opportunities and influences existing jobs, it is essential to prepare learners from HEI with digital skills. In addition, this effort is necessary to build learners’ soft skills, which would eventually boost their confidence level and improve communication through the help of technology.

Skills teaching calls for collaborative efforts

Enriching African higher education students with 21st-century skills such as creativity, criticality, communication, collaboration, leadership, flexibility, analogy, and digital skills can be achieved when they are brought together virtually or physically to share new ideas and knowledge and collaborate to build one another’s expertise.

Studies have shown that regular communication with other students and educators as a community or a family would eventually help them break the barrier of inferiority, build a sense of belongingness, and encourage them to engage in conversation.

Therefore, African education ministries and institutions have a critical role in embedding learning skills in the curriculum to meet the industry’s and society’s demands. Suitable pedagogical approaches such as virtual learning community, project-based learning, experiential learning and constructivism learning that leave room for authentic communication and higher-order thinking skills have the potential to prepare undergraduates for their future employment.

To reach this goal, it is crucial to train and prepare educators with relevant knowledge of the pedagogical approaches so that they would be able to apply suitable teaching approaches and strategies during the teaching and learning process.

This initiative is critical because only competent educators can prepare learners with sufficient knowledge and skills using the right pedagogical approaches by addressing learners’ needs, learning styles, and objectives of the course.

It is also vital to prepare educators with digital skills such as writing websites or blogs, collaborating with other educators from different institutions through social media, convening learners, educators and corporate staff through a virtual community of practice, and preparing digital presentations. Educators who are tech savvy can deliver knowledge and skills via technology and prepare learners with digital skills that they will certainly use in their careers and life.

The government also plays an important role in preparing learners with 21st-century skills. For example, the government should collaborate with the telecommunications industry to expand internet coverage, including in rural areas. A good internet network creates opportunities for lifelong learning.

The ministries of higher education should invest in a conducive learning environment by furnishing classrooms with suitable technological devices such as computers and projectors, providing spacious classrooms, bringing in experts from different organisations or countries to train educators and learners, and extending monetary support for learners’ projects or research.

In addition, HEI and private sectors should work together to determine employers’ expectations from fresh graduates. The collaboration between tertiary institutions and private sectors is essential to identify suitable courses and skills that should be taught to learners for their future employment.

Private sectors should open doors to fresh graduates and train them for the betterment of both parties instead of lamenting fresh graduates’ incompetence. Internships should be taken seriously by the corporate and government sectors, and they should train the interns in an authentic working environment that would test their abilities and hone their skills.

Dr Muhammad Muftahu is a Nigerian who works as a senior lecturer, acting director, deputy director and coordinator of the Global Higher Education Network, National Higher Education Research Institute, Universiti Sains Malaysia.