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CEDAR RAPIDS - So you've got degree from a good university. And you graduated with honors, after landing several internships that gave you credible experience to include in your growing resume.
But you still might not land the job. That's because employers increasingly are considering a more vague set of attributes in assessing job candidates - 'soft skills.”
Those are the non-technical personal and professional qualities and attitudes - such as the ability to communicate well and work with a team - that are transferrable from one job to another. Employers increasingly are listing those skills among their top considerations in screening job candidates.
And, correspondingly, educators - such as those at the University of Iowa's Henry B. Tippie College of Business and Pomerantz Career Center - are focusing more attention on those attributes in preparing students to enter the work force.
'It would be irresponsible if we didn't have you leaving here with a good set of soft skills,” UI adjunct lecturer Michael Stutzman told students during one of his business communications classes last month. 'Where do people continuously falter in their careers? It's in the soft skills.”
Stutzman, who works in human resources business at Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, recently told his students that he witnesses the importance of supportive skills in the workplace every day.
'They are used as the top one or two criteria in deciding promotions,” Stutzman said. 'If there is a glass ceiling holding people back, this is it.”
Soft skills include the ability to community well - both in writing and face to face - and work as a team. They include leadership skills, listening abilities, work ethic, time management, flexibility and public speaking.
Candidates can promote those skills either through leadership- and teamwork-type experience on their resume and by showing them off during in-person interviews.
Those attributes long have been desirable in any job setting. But experts now say they are changing and becoming more important as new technologies emerge and as companies expand their scope and reach.
Pamela Bourjaily, director of the UI Frank Business Communications Center, said teamwork in today's business world could include coordinating people on virtual platforms and communication could involve developing and giving digital presentations to clients around the world.
'There are differences in how people work,” Bourjaily said. 'At some point, you are going to have to be in a partnership or give a presentation to an audience where English is not everyone's first language.”
Learning to speak more slowly and create presentations with universal images and graphics - not necessarily learning a new language -- are some of the more modern attributes of desirable employees, she said.
Bourjaily coordinates a business communication and protocol course centered on soft skills that is required for all UI undergraduates in the business college. But, she said, many professors teaching traditional business courses - such as finance or marketing - also are doing more to integrate soft skills into their instruction.
Some, for example, increasingly are asking students to coalesce for projects, practice problem-solving techniques or participate in online lectures and projects.
'Soft skills are integrative skills because they are the ones that require you to integrate them into everything you do,” Bourjaily said.
‘They are critical'
A 2014 job outlook report produced by the National Association of Colleges and Employers analyzed how employers view candidates and found that although many screen for things such as grad point average and other required training or experience, communication and leadership skills were among the most desired attributes.
In fact, 76.6 percent of employers said they look for written communication skills in candidates, and 76 percent said they value leadership skills. A majority 72 percent of employers said they look for signs of a strong work ethic on applicant resumes, and 71.4 percent said they assess a person's ability to work as a team, according to the report.
The analysis also shows that if two job candidates are equally qualified, one of the top tiebreaking elements is having held a leadership position.
And when asked to rank candidate skills from 1 to 5 in terms of importance, ability to work as a team earned the highest average rating, followed by ability to problem solve, be organized, communicate well and process and obtain information.
All of those skills earned higher average ratings than 'technical knowledge related to the job” and 'proficiency with computer software programs.”
Kelley Ashby, director of academic and leadership programs with the UI Pomerantz Career Center, oversees academic and leadership initiatives involving students from any major or program. She seconded the notion that soft skills long have been important but agreed that they seem to be shifting based on the new technologies and global reach of today's companies.
'I think they are critical in any field,” Ashby told The Gazette in an email. 'I cannot think of one where communication and the ability to work well with others would not be desired, for example.”
Some careers - such as those in marketing, for example - might have a higher demand for soft skills based on the amount of interaction with other people. But, she said, the 'top 10” list of qualities valued by employers 'hasn't changed much in the past eight years.”
'Some things move a bit in the order, but the overall list stays relatively the same,” she said.
In terms of developing those skills, Ashby has a general tip for students.
'Practice, practice, practice - with feedback from someone who understands the soft skills being developed,” Ashby said.
The UI Pomerantz Career Center, in addition to the business college, offers several courses focused on developing soft skills in today's workplace. It currently counts 565 students enrolled in those classes.
'We like to provide students with the opportunity to learn experientially and receive feedback on how they are performing the skill,” Ashby said.
‘I have learned a lot'
While teaching one of his soft skills classes recently, UI lecturer Stutzman told students that he has seen a big shift in employer attitude toward the supplementary employee traits.
'Twenty-some years ago when I graduated, soft skills weren't given any respect,” he said. 'It was almost like they got in the way of making money.”
But companies today, more than ever, are asking employees to 'push frontiers, exercise insightful judgment, unleash energy, communicate masterfully, build powerful networks and execute flawlessly.”
And UI sophomore Emily Starr said she's experienced that demand first hand. She has worked as an intern for the Chamber of Commerce and is on the UI governing board Associated Residence Halls.
She also spent the summer flipping a house - buying and reselling in nine weeks - and she wants to own a business one day. Starr said her role with the Associated Residence Halls is 'stretching” her soft skills the most right now - although she has seen their value in all aspects of her work to date.
'I am critiquing people and training them,” she said. 'I have learned a lot about how to talk to people.”