If This Is So Important, Why Didn’t They Teach It to Me?

Have people told you networking is important? What about communication, teamwork, and leadership? For all the lip service given them, how much formal education did you have on such essential skills? Probably little, if any. What are these skills and why haven't they been taught to students?

September 7, 2021
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4
min read

During primary school you spent countless hours learning math, reading, writing, history, basic science, and other fundamental skills. This is clearly a worthwhile investment because without these basic skills your ability to function in society would be limited. In high school, you branched out into specific domains such foreign language, literature, economics, programming, philosophy, and others.

In college, those classes grew into a major. A college degree has an expectation of a certain number of classes within that domain to make you an expert. The institutions of higher learning also require some general classes in other fields to round out your education.

Unlike your primary and secondary education, which provided foundational knowledge for both learning and the modern world, your college education trained you for a specific discipline. The degree credentialed you for a role in certain fields. That’s not to say you can’t take a job outside your major, but your philosophy degree doesn’t qualify you to be a software developer any more than a Bachelor of Science in chemistry teaches you marketing. It is a college education that traditionally prepares you for your future jobs. (This is true whether or not you take a job in your field.)

Given all this education, are you prepared? Have you been given the tools you need? A college degree provides sufficient, but not exhaustive knowledge and training. No one would suggest that a management major is ready to lead a corporation, or a mechanical engineer is ready to design the next car. The training provides a foundational set of knowledge which will be expanded upon throughout a career. There is still more marketing, engineering, finance, or other knowledge to be learned, but given what the student knows upon graduation she or he can begin to acquire that additional knowledge. The students have been led down a path and now can continue on their own.

What if, during the education process, a key element was skipped?

What if, during the education process, a key element was skipped? What if writing was never taught? A marketer would be relying on campaigns of pictures alone; not to mention she would miss out on most office communication that wasn’t spoken. What if we failed to teach math? A novelist may compose great literature, but he’ll be unable to comprehend the royalties in the contract and sign away his writing for too low of a price.

It seems laughable that skills so valuable would be wholly ignored, and yet, they are. Has anyone ever told you networking is important? How about strong communication skills? What about teamwork? When asked what skills are most valuable to today’s workers, corporations regularly list those skills, but also list strong work habits, ethics, negotiating, emotional intelligence, initiative, situational awareness, and more.

Think back to your education. Did you have a single class on any of this? A few management majors may have taken a leadership or negotiating class. Some lucky folks may have had a teacher who emphasized some of these skills. Most of us toiled away at our majors, writing term papers, and doing problem sets, thinking that at the end of the degree program we would have sufficient knowledge and skills to succeed in our field. Most of us were shortchanged in our education. We were not sufficiently trained in the skills employers wanted.

The field of education progresses slowly. Compulsory education in the United States goes back only a century. From roughly 1850 to 1950 schools went from being luxuries or political tools to bureaucratic institutions. The focus shifted from teaching classics (Latin and Greek) to a handful of elites destined to universities to a broader education for a wider segment of the population. The modern schools were designed to send more students to college, and from minimal literacy requirements to a broad skillset to make their graduates more employable for white collar and higher end blue collar jobs.

This was a laudable change helping spur post WWII economic growth in the U.S. But consider the jobs in post WWII America. Even if not purely assembly line jobs, high-end blue-collar jobs such as construction focused on a limited number of repetitive tasks. Likewise, corporate America was extremely hierarchical; the managers decided what to do and the employees executed their tasks. Leadership was limited to the leaders, who could rely on well-funded HR departments to continue to train them (formal leadership training itself only began in earnest around the middle of the 20th century). Communication meant explaining your ideas to a room full of other white males who were in your field with your training and background. Emotional intelligence and corporate ethics weren’t even afterthoughts.

What happened? The world changed. The teams became more fluid, more dynamic, more multi-disciplinary, the workforce more diverse, not just in terms of race and gender, but of background and upbringing. Hierarchies flattened and individual contributors began to contribute their thinking and initiative, no longer simply confined to shifting papers from the inbox to the outbox. Leadership was no longer restricted to those with an executive title.

As this began HR budgets shifted. Seventy years ago, HR recruited employees, mapped out a path for the budding new hires, and trained them and supported them as they grew. Today the same HR department still hires, although now from an avalanche of resumes sent with the click of a button. They focus on diversity and inclusion and hold anti-harassment workshops and compliance training as per industry regulations. HR no longer simply offers a paycheck and healthcare but also corporate gyms, fancy office snacks, tuition reimbursement, flexible work schedules, and more all the while being asked to measure and assess the impact on employee morale, retention, and productivity. The set of responsibilities has increased over the past fifty years without a commiserate change in HR staffing or budgets.

So, while the needed skill set has expanded, the skills themselves are generally not taught in our secondary or college education which was designed for a workforce of decades ago.

So, while the needed skill set has expanded, the skills themselves are generally not taught in our secondary or college education which was designed for a workforce of decades ago. Nor does an overtaxed HR department have sufficient resources to grow employees at most organizations.

It’s important to clarify that education hasn’t remained static. Textbooks have been supplemented by online learning. Learning how to present to the class now means learning to present with digital slides in some cases. However, these are the tools, not the content. The content itself has also expanded to include more STEM skills, foreign language offerings beyond the traditional Spanish and French, and more. But here the content is new knowledge, and not the professional skill development sought by corporations. STEM skills are much needed, but they, too, aren’t sufficient.

If corporations are the ultimate end users of a school’s output, then students are the product. Unfortunately, the system has not had the necessary feedback to respond to the needs of the customer. To be fair, schools have many interested parties: students, parents, teachers, administrators, support staff, communities, politicians, and government. Still, the end customer, the one who ultimately evaluates the product’s quality, is not in the loop. To be competitive in the twenty-first century, this needs to change. Education in general needs to engage society writ large, including corporations, to help guide what students need to learn and take a forward-looking view.

The schools of tomorrow need to continue to teach the fundamentals; and certainly, they should continue to promote STEM education. However, this is not sufficient. They must also begin to address the demand for leadership, communication, effective teamwork, networking / relationship development, and other professional career skills, and life skills, that future generations will need to succeed in business and in life.

By
Mark A. Herschberg
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If This Is So Important, Why Didn’t They Teach It to Me?

Have people told you networking is important? What about communication, teamwork, and leadership? For all the lip service given them, how much formal education did you have on such essential skills? Probably little, if any. What are these skills and why haven't they been taught to students?

September 7, 2021
/
4
min read
Professional Development
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