Solving the STEM Skills Gap: Focusing More on Soft Skills

Solving the STEM Skills Gap: Focusing More on Soft Skills

Three years ago, in an article titled “Why Education Technology Doesn’t Exist”, former high school instructor and teacher-of-teachers at Johns Hopkins University School of Education, Shelly Blake-Plock stated: “I tell you honestly that I don’t think we’ve even begun to scratch the surface when it comes to education in the era of the Internet”. Unfortunately, those three years seem to have proven him correct.

Despite the over $750 million in pledges from tech companies in the last couple years to help “bring schools into the 21st century”, the STEM skills gap, particularly in IT, has only widened.

It’s been reported that 33% of U.S. workers claim that they are not proficient in the technology required to do their job, while only 10% report having mastered workplace tech tools. By some estimates, businesses to hemorrhage $1.3 Trillion a year because of this--and that doesn’t even take into account costs brought on by the astronomical rise of cybercrime and cyberwarfare.

With national security and trillions of dollars on the line, it’s clear that something more effective needs to be done to address the gap. Up until now, the answer to the has simply been more money, more computers, and more hard skills instruction--but the figures and experts indicate otherwise.

More computers does not equal better learning

According to Francesco Avvisati, the author of a new report titled “Students, Computers, and Learning: Making the Connection”, our current system is sorely lacking in education that can capably and intelligently adapt technology to the classroom.

“What the report clearly shows is that the link between more computers and better learning is not a direct one,” says Avvisati in an interview with EdTechReport. “There are many people involved in translating the promise of technology into a tangible benefit for the students, and as a consequence there are many possible leaks in the pipe where things can go wrong.”

Blake-Pock agrees. “What’s happening now is often blind investors [are] pouring money into ‘EdTech’ things they don’t understand,” he says. “I’ve spoken with representatives of each camp and they seem strangely, perfectly fine with this relationship.”

Why are they fine with it? Because many agree that there’s no way to know exactly what skills students will need to know to succeed in the future. According to author Gary Marx, 60% of new jobs will require skills that only 20% of workers currently have. Of course, Marx is talking about measurable hard skills, the type that education and industry alike have been fixated upon--and he may be right. How are supposed to teach our students skills for jobs that don’t exist yet? The answer might just be the same way that IT managers are filling positions despite the skills gap: focus more on soft skills.

Creativity, innovation, and motivation to learn on the job

Harrison Ambs, the Lead Software Architect at web design firm Stickboy Creative, recently did an interview with LifeHacker explaining how he got his job. After dropping out of college and jumping between jobs, Ambs landed a job at Stickboy first as a Designer, eventually becoming the company’s Creative Director, and subsequently the Lead Software Architect position he holds now. He explains that as the company courted clients with more complex development needs, he was forced to adapt and “wear many hats”.

“As far as experience goes,” says Ambs, “it’s almost always learning on the job.”

Like many other software developers nowadays, Ambs learned from and follows the blogs and newsletters of developers. Most likely not a skill he was taught during the “Wikipedia isn’t a reliable source” era in education. So why is it that Ambs is able to succeed in such a skill-driven profession with absolutely no prior training in the field?

“I’ve always been drawn to complex problem solving and producing solutions that meet those problems,” he says. “I also love the creative process and coming up with something no one has ever seen before.”

Soft skills like creativity, problem-solving, innovation, and motivation are hard to measure, but absolutely essential to a company’s success, and we need to start treating them as such in the classroom. Of course we’re unable to teach students the hard skills for jobs that don’t exist yet--but perhaps we can teach them soft skills that will allow them to learn those hard skills once they pop up.


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About the Author
Author: Andrew Heikkila
Andrew Heikkila is a writer from Boise, ID with strong interests in tech, education, and social issues. He's an artist in his free time, and when he's not writing he enjoys kicking back with his S.O., his brothers, and a six pack of beer. You can find him on Twitter here @AndyO_TheHammer

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