Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden - 02/11/2015

Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden -

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Social skills to pay the bills

Modern workplaces are like preschool. Our schools and homes should be too.

At preschool “children move from art projects to science experiments to the playground in small groups,” writes Claire Cain Miller for New York Times, “and their most important skills are sharing and negotiating with others.” But this kind of collaborative, relational learning dwindles when formal schooling begins, and perhaps, to the detriment of future employment outcomes for our children and productivity as a nation.

Research by Harvard academic David Deming shows that the number of jobs in the US requiring social skills has grown twice as fast as those requiring maths skills over the past thirty years—a rise of 24% in demand. While jobs primarily focussed on social skills without much need for maths like lawyers or child-care workers have grown in market share, the real growth exists in roles where technical and interpersonal skills meet like doctors, engineers or computer scientists working in group settings. New Zealand recruiters agree, saying that “employers will continue to require emotionally intelligent workers, who could collaborate, innovate, work in teams and bring people together into a team.” Maths and science skills alone aren’t enough, as jobs requiring these skills are the prime candidates for automation.

A focus on teaching these “hard” skills potentially explains some of the interesting research findings on the differences between early education and schooling effects in the context of later employment outcomes. Children who attend early childhood education tend to do better at school initially, but this advantage generally fades after a few years and their results converge with those who didn’t. When it comes to getting a well-paid job, however, longitudinal research suggests that the early childhood education begins to pay off for future earnings, in large part due to the social skills developed in the formative years.

As Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman writes, “too much emphasis continues to be placed on one side of the human capital coin – namely cognitive skills, variously equated with IQ and scores on achievement tests – to the detriment of character skills.” Literacy and numeracy remain important, of course, but we ignore developing complementary skills like cooperation, conflict resolution and self control at our peril. Heckman identifies parents, teachers, and mentors as those best placed to build “scaffolding” for children by identifying where kids are at academically and socially and responding in a way that challenges and helps them grow.

All of this suggests that we should not be afraid of computers or robots taking all of our jobs. But we do need to adapt. To use economic language, the social skills we possess as humans are our comparative advantage protecting us from automation, and our focus needs to be on developing these over our lives in a way that complements technological advances.

To truly future-proof our kids and our economy, our homes and schools need to become incubators for skills development: both smarts and social. Additional focus on social skills will be the scaffolding for our success.

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Kieran Madden

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