A Hard Look at Soft Skill Development

Previously, I wrote about the fact that our high schools are not doing a good enough job of helping students develop the soft skills they will need to succeed in the workplace. I also noted that many HR professionals believe that making some changes to existing high school curriculum, and providing more experiential learning opportunities (i.e. volunteering or co-op), could help to address this problem. However, I wondered how students could even obtain such positions, if soft skills are important in the search for them.

I would first suggest that we start when children are young. All children can be taught how to communicate clearly,  the importance of being on time to appointments, and how to be courteous and a good team player. Parents and teachers can all play a part in teaching young people these important soft skills, just by working them into every day interactions. It needn’t be a difficult process, and it would go a long way to ensuring students’ success, not just in the workplace, but in life in general.

I think for too long now, students have been coddled and treated with kid gloves, in the misguided belief that this will preserve their self-esteem. I noted in the previous post how many times, students are not held accountable for turning in schoolwork late, or for repeatedly being late to class. By allowing them to get away with such behaviours, we miss out on the chance to help them develop useful soft skills, and to become more responsible people, and thus, more valuable workers.

Once students are accustomed to using soft skills in their school life and at home, they will be better positioned to obtain volunteering and co-op positions when they reach high school age. Their interviews will have a greater chance of going smoothly, since they will be better able to communicate and interact with the decision makers they will encounter. This strategy has the best chance of success if we start teaching our children from an early age, and not leaving it until it might be too late.

What do you all think? What is your take on the soft skills question? I’d love to hear from you!

The Problem with Soft Skills

According to a survey from the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) in Toronto, our high schools are not adequately preparing students for the workplace; in fact, 42% of respondents reported that these young people are lacking the necessary soft skills required for entry-level work.

Perhaps before I go any further with this, I should define what exactly hard and soft skills are, as some people are not clear on the difference. Hard skills are those that are required to perform a job successfully; these skills are often included in the requirements for a job, and are those that can be acquired through formal education and training programs. Examples of hard skills are web design, accounting, typing and mathematics. Soft skills on the other hand, are attributes and personality traits that are not quantifiable like hard skills are. Soft skills include things like leadership, empathy, and communication, all things which are very hard to teach in a formal setting. Both hard and soft skills are required for success in the workplace, which is why this survey is so interesting.

According to the results, the top three soft skills that are lacking are problem-solving (cited by 62% of respondents), attention to detail (cited by 56%), and interpersonal / teamwork skills (48% of respondents chose this). Where this becomes really interesting however, is in the fact that 70.7% of respondents felt that changes to high school curriculum could help students gain the skills they are currently lacking. But, I just noted above that soft skills are very difficult to teach in a formal educational setting. How then, can this be reconciled?

I would suggest that part of the reason for the lack of soft skills stems from the lowering of standards that is becoming more prevalent in our schools. I hear more and more that secondary students are often not held accountable for turning work in on time, and that communication and writing standards are on the decline, with text speak and poor grammar becoming more common. In my own work with college students,  I witnessed first-hand the lack of soft skills every day. I was an employment advisor, who met one-on-one with students to provide them with help on job search skills and resume writing. I can’t even count how many times students would not show up for their appointments, and never let me know they would not be in, or who could not communicate to me what their goals were or what kind of work they were interested in. In many cases, I also noticed a lack of initiative and a failure to take responsibility for the students’ own learning. All of these things speak to the problem with soft skills that I have been discussing.

Whatever the reason for the missing skills, the HRPA did suggest a possible solution to the problem. Respondents overwhelmingly felt that if schools provided more opportunities for experiential learning, the issue might be improved. Examples of experiential learning include co-ops and volunteer experiences.

But, herein lies a conundrum. How can a student obtain one of these positions to improve their soft skills, when soft skills are necessary to land the opportunity in the first place? Hmm. Seems like a good topic to explore in a future blog post. Stay tuned for my thoughts!

*See the survey at



Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

After previously writing about university as preparation for the real world, and the importance of self-awareness for job seekers, I thought it might be a good idea to focus on how exactly young people can learn what jobs exist, and what they actually entail. Given the sheer number of possibilities out there, it would be impossible to learn about every single one; still, with a sense of their interests and skills, any teenager can start to explore options that might be a good fit.

The reason I suggest starting when your child is a teenager, is that many people select jobs and careers while only having a vague sense of what they actually involve. This can lead to a poor fit, which in turn can lead to frequently switching jobs and careers and never really getting established in anything. Exploring possibilities earlier on can help to clarify what the teen is really interested in, and help them to follow a more connected path.

So how can teenagers begin to explore their career possibilities? There are three main ways I would suggest:

  1. Informational interviews
  2. Job shadowing
  3. Volunteering

Though I could write a great deal here about the ins and outs of each method, I think I might save that for future posts. For now, I want to point out the benefits of using any or all of these methods to explore career options.

  • Any of these methods provides the young person with a healthy dose of reality. Too many of us choose our professions without ever really knowing exactly what the ins and outs of the profession are. Job shadowing allows the shadower to see up close what a person does every day in their job. The other two methods I’ve mentioned provide a similar insider’s view of a particular job, and can be very helpful in determining whether perception lives up to reality when it comes to a given job.
  • Once a teenager has an idea of his or her particular skills, interests, and talents, the three exploration methods can help them to see if a particular job is in line with those qualities. It would certainly be helpful to discover beforehand if a job plays to the teen’s strengths, or if it involves a high proportion of skills or abilities that they lack or have no desire to develop.
  • Exploring the realities of different jobs can help a young person begin to grasp the idea of career paths. This means seeing how different jobs might be related, and how one can move between different jobs that use similar skill sets, so as not to have to start at square one each time they decide to make a job change. Again, talking to actual people who do various jobs can be immensely helpful in this regard.
  • One benefit that might not be immediately evident, is the fact that valuable contacts and mentors can be acquired from engaging in informational interviews, job shadowing or volunteering. Often, relationships are formed that can be very helpful when one is starting in their own career.  It can be very useful to have people to turn to to ask for advice when faced with career dilemmas or important decisions. We all need help from time to time, after all. Forming these contacts early on can only be beneficial.

As you can see, there are many ways to start learning about the world of jobs, and each can help a young person in a myriad of ways. The key is starting early, and being open to learning and enjoying the process.


It All Starts With Self-Awareness

In my last post, I wrote about how well universities are preparing students for the workplace, and wondered whether students’ perceptions about the working world are even accurate. I thought that for this post, I might explore some of the ways in which students can start learning about different workplaces, but then realized that would be overlooking a crucial step. Before a person can even begin thinking about jobs and employment, they must have a solid understanding of their own skills, interests, values and strengths. Without this knowledge, no jobseeker can be adequately prepared to choose a fulfilling work situation. I would even argue that this knowledge is crucial to choosing the most suitable option for training for a job; college, university or apprenticeship.

Here are some stats, courtesy of the publication The Decade After High School, to illustrate how lack of self-awareness and knowledge can impede students from making informed choices:

  • 60% of students graduate from a different program than the one they started in
  • 2 years post-graduation, 50% of Canadian undergrads are in jobs that don’t require the skills they gained in university

This information suggests that many students are not taking the time to really get to know themselves and their true strengths before choosing a post-secondary option. As a result, many students follow a meandering path, and frequently end up in employment that does not even require the costly education they acquired.

But what can be done to remedy this problem? After all, many teenagers are concerned they won’t have the time to really find themselves and uncover their passions before having to choose a career. Keeping in mind that no career choice is set in stone, it is still possible for young people to make informed choices if they start learning about what really motivates them, much earlier than when they actually need to make a decision. The sooner teenagers begin to explore their options, the better equipped they will be to make choices that allow for flexibility and ultimately, fulfillment.

This is where parents come in. There are many small actions you can take to help your son or daughter begin to think about what they might want to do with their life. If started early enough, the information gathered from these activities will help to paint a picture of what your son or daughter’s possible career path might look like. For starters, you can:

  1. Ask your teenager positive questions that will help them to determine their preferences, talents and abilities. Over time, they will begin to see patterns and possibilities.
  2. Observe how your teenagers spend their time. A great deal of useful career information can be gathered from noting what hobbies, teams, volunteer roles or classes your teenager is most drawn to. Help them to see how these interests might line up with their career ideas.
  3. Use your own experience to help. Talk to your teenager about how your own values, interests, skills and personality come into play in your work.

These and other actions can go a long way to helping young people develop the self-awareness and knowledge required to assist them in making informed decisions about their education and career. What’s more, this knowledge can serve as an anchor to keep them focused as they navigate the ever-changing world of employment and careers.

University as Preparation for the Real World

I recently read an interesting report from Maclean’s magazine, regarding a survey of Canadian university students. The survey was asking about which schools and programs had best prepared these students for the workplace. More than 17,000 students, spanning almost every Canadian university were surveyed. The results were fairly eye-opening. Here is a sampling of some of the responses:

  • 53% of students at St. Francis Xavier strongly agreed that they have the skills and knowledge required for employment
  • 71% of St. FX nursing students felt they had been well-prepared for the workplace
  • Students were also asked whether their schools had helped them with their writing abilities; St. Thomas University came out on top here.

The survey was anonymous and self-reported, so we have to assume that students responded honestly. Still, I think this report raises some interesting points to consider.

  1. Is university necessarily the best or most effective post-secondary option in preparing students for the workplace?
  2. Are students’ perceptions about the workplace and all that it entails even accurate? If not, how can they be sure they’re actually prepared for it once they finish school?

For this post, I will only share my thoughts on the first point. In short, my answer is “no.” There are many reasons why university is not the be-all, end-all solution to getting a job and being successful at that job. First of all, and perhaps most importantly, not all students who decide to go to university actually belong there. Too many students go to university simply because all of their friends are going, or because they have been sold the idea that university is the only pathway to success. Neither of these is sufficient reason to embark on such a challenging, and expensive journey as a university degree.

If a teenager is not self-directed or independently motivated enough to study and complete assignments, then university is likely not the right destination for them. Unlike in high school, professors at university do not check after students to ensure that work is being completed; instead, once an assignment has been given, students are unlikely to hear about it again until it is due. This requires students to be on top of their own work, and some simply are not able to take this kind of responsibility. Also, the workload is often so heavy in university that some students don’t know how to manage it and thus become overwhelmed, ultimately leading to falling impossibly behind.

However, it’s not just the fact that some students are unsuited to university that poses a problem; there is also the fact that university programs tend to be very theory-oriented, as opposed to focusing on practical skills. Because of this, most students graduate with excellent critical thinking skills, an ability to discuss theories and ideas, and useful skills in research and synthesis of ideas. It is difficult to judge how directly applicable such skills are to many workplaces. It is interesting to note though, that in terms of the article I mentioned at the start of this post, a high percentage of nursing students felt they had been well-prepared for the workplace. This might be because a nursing program involves a practical component, with students actually working in a health-care setting, and thus having the opportunity to apply what they are learning to a real-life situation. An English or Philosophy major for example, would likely not have the same kind of opportunity.

Now, a caveat; none of what I’ve said is meant to knock university. Plenty of people attend university and do find good jobs and success in life. I am merely trying to point out that university is not necessarily the best option for all students, and may not in all cases adequately prepare students for the world of work. In order to ensure that university is a good option for a particular student, it is important to first, understand the capabilities of that student, and second, to understand what a particular university program will actually entail and how that might apply to the workplace. If these questions are addressed beforehand, university can be an excellent option indeed.

*Survey report can be found at


The Big Picture

As I sit here contemplating how to begin this first blog post, I find myself reflecting on how I even got to this point. I never set out to start my own business, yet through a series of events, many outside of my control, here I am. My career path has taken me through a teaching degree, stints working as a tutor, supply teacher and adult diploma program teacher, to a Career Development Practitioner certificate, to a job as an employment advisor in a college, to being my own boss. It hasn’t been an easy path by any means, but it is one that I wouldn’t change, because it has led me to this moment. And my journey has given me the very insights that led me to want to start this business in particular.

I confess that when I was in school, I never gave much thought early on to what I might want to do as a career. I was a good student, and figured I would worry about careers when the time came. The thing is, when the time came, I wasn’t as prepared as I could have been. I never visited the career centre in university, instead focusing on my heavy workload and trying to get good grades. Thus, I had no idea what I might do upon graduation. After a time, I decided I wanted to go to Teacher’s College, since I always enjoyed school and public speaking and figured the job would be a good fit (probably because various people told me I would make a good teacher). At first, everything was fine, but the job market was much tougher than I thought it would be, and my teaching career never really took off the way I hoped it would. When I made the difficult decision to leave the field, I didn’t know where else I could apply my skills. Luckily, I was referred to a career exploration program, and this helped me to see that employment coaching would be a good fit. I enjoyed the work, but never really found my niche. Little did I know though, that through all of these career ups and downs, my real purpose in life was starting to emerge.

The common thread that ran through all of this work was that students didn’t seem to have any idea where they were headed or what they wanted to do once school was finished. Even the ones in college had only a vague notion of what kind of career they might get with their diploma. I wondered how they could be this far in school, and yet be so uninformed about their options. It occurred to me they should have started considering their futures long ago, much as I should have when I was in school. Perhaps then my path wouldn’t have been so hard.

According to a report by People for Education, an organization supporting public education in Ontario, the current state of career education in our province’s secondary schools is less than ideal, although there are plans to try and improve this. Students from kindergarten to Grade 12 are supposed to have learning portfolios, and career and life-planning committees are supposed to be established in every school. Also, teachers are supposed to receive professional development to help them integrate career and life planning in the classroom. The problem is that the implementation of all of these initiatives has been challenging, and there just isn’t enough guidance staff in schools to handle the extra work. In fact, 16% of secondary schools don’t have a full-time guidance counsellor, and 1 in 10 schools struggles with a ratio of 600 students to one counsellor. Clearly something must be done to help deliver the earlier career planning intervention that teenagers need.

This brings me to why I have decided to start this business. I realized I could combine my knowledge of teaching and career coaching with my own experiences finding my purpose in life, to help teenagers uncover possibilities for their own futures. I like to think of it as helping them to see the “big picture” of career development – understanding that instead of focusing on a job title as an end game, the key is to see options and possibilities. This fosters flexibility and resilience, two traits that will be key to navigating the future job market. Without these, youth will continue to experience difficulty and uncertainty along their career paths. I want to try and help them minimize that.

Thank you for reading my story. I hope that maybe it will help others in some way, at least to avoid some of the mistakes I have made in my own career. And I hope you will consider contacting me to help you and your teenager to see the big picture.