Preserving America's Historical Significance

Another Major Shortcoming in the Labor Force: Intangible Skills

The education establishment in the United States—from K-12 to higher education—is in serious trouble on many fronts. Students are graduating high school with scant job prospects, ill-prepared for the demands of the workforce. Even worse, college students are graduating with 6-figures of non-dischargeable student loan debt and little connection between their education and the demands of the workforce. Except for some STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math)-based fields, the costs of a college degree are fast-becoming out of touch with the benefits. If the problems stopped here, it would be bad enough.

Now, we have even more bad news: not only are workers not technically-qualified for many of the good jobs, they are lacking basic common-sense skills: communication, basic professionalism, even team orientation. This is reflective not only of a breakdown in our education system, but at the basic building block of society. Historically, these intangible skills are learned in the home

While Burstein correctly points out the lack in such skills, she is errant in thinking that Common Core will resolve this dilemma. It will not, and in fact will only exacerbate the existing problems in the education system. While the technical skill gap reflects a failure in schools, the intangible skill gap reflects a larger failure in homes.

Critical thinking is not learned solely from reading literature—although that can help—but is also gained from managing complex situations with varying levels of risk. You don’t learn that on a smartphone or a video game. 

A wise engineering professor once said, “You don’t really start learning until you encounter a problem that you cannot solve.” He was spot-on: when you have to dig outside your body of knowledge to arrive at an answer, then you begin to really learn. This isn’t merely about engineering, it’s about life

In childhood and adolescence, one must learn the rigorous subjects: addition and subtraction, multiplication tables, algebra, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and even chemistry and physics.  That necessary body of learning also includes playing team sports, doing odd jobs, learning to prioritize, and working with people. In the process, one learns the complexities of decision-making, as well as responsibility and accountability. 

Just as you begin learning when you encounter a problem you cannot solve, you also begin learning when you fail. In homes and schools alike, students often aren’t allowed to fail; this deprives them of a very hard reality of life, as failure is an opportunity to learn risk management and responsibility, not to mention integrity.

While schools—to include colleges—can help on these fronts, these are the intangibles that children and teens need to learn at home. 

The workforce is, and has always been, fickle and demanding. Employers need workers who will show up on time and ready to contribute, who have interpersonal skills, who can work with a team to solve problems, who will put in the extra time when that becomes necessary, who will take prudent risks and accept responsibility.

That begins with parents.