Interpersonal Skills and Today's Job Market

Jobs requiring high levels of social interaction are growing. What does that mean for schools?

October 3, 2017
illlustration of diverse group of people with gear-like mechanism over their heads

Teachers know all too well the collective groan associated with announcing a group project. Endless gripes and grievances can follow — “But he’s not doing his work!” “She’s not listening to my ideas!” and ultimately, “Can’t I just work alone?”

The answer to that last question should usually be a resolute “no,” according to a forthcoming article that reveals the increasing importance of social skills in the contemporary labor market. Professions requiring high levels of social interaction — such as managers, teachers, nurses, therapists, consultants, and lawyers — have grown by nearly 12 percentage points as a share of all jobs in the United States economy in the last 30 years. Math-intensive but less social jobs shrunk by 3.3 percentage points over the same period. The pay for more social-intensive jobs is increasing at a faster rate as well. 

For educators, it’s a reminder that working through those tricky group dynamics may have significant value for today’s young people.

People with strong interpersonal skills can do more than collaborate effectively. They're able to vary how they act and what they contribute. They notice the strengths and weaknesses of others in their group, and they adapt.

A Focus on Collaboration, Perspective-Taking, Flexibility

The reason for this shift in the labor market, as economist David Deming has described in a previously published working paper, is that social interaction is difficult to automate. Computers can increasingly perform single-task jobs and complex programming work, but they can’t adapt to changing needs or unforeseen circumstances, and they can’t collaborate with others to overcome those obstacles.

People, however, can excel in these types of situations — if they have the right social competencies. So what social skills precisely do they need?

“When you use the phrase ‘social skills,’ people often have in mind something like social graces or etiquette, or even something like extraversion,” says Deming, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “I don’t really think about it that way.”

What’s more important, he says, is the ability to “put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and coordinate with them so that the two of you can work together, so that everybody is doing the thing he or she is best suited to doing, given the composition of the group.” He adds, “That often requires knowing when to be a leader and when to be a follower, knowing when you’re the data specialist in the group versus when it’s time for you to be the writer or the presenter.”

People who have these interpersonal skills are the people who can vary how they act and what they contribute. They notice the strengths and weaknesses of their group, and they adapt.

Takeaways for High Schools

Schools don’t yet have reliable measures for how to develop and assess so-called “noncognitive” skills like these, although a number of researchers and educators are working on approaches, reflecting a growing recognition of their importance not just on labor market outcomes but on educational attainment. But for high schools, this research at least suggests that educators should think more about how students are learning, rather than just what they’re learning.

“You want the classroom to reflect the richness of real-life interactions, and to give people experience in the kinds of settings that are going to be useful to them when they leave school,” says Deming. Assignments and curricula should integrate opportunities to work collaboratively.

Group projects, for example, are valuable learning opportunities. Long-term project-based work, in which students work as a team, receive feedback, and revise together, are also important experiences. And when assessing students, teachers should take teamwork into account, signifying that the ability to collaborate is just as important as the content students are learning or producing.

Takeaways for Colleges and Universities

In the higher education sphere, professors and administrators should encourage students to seek out real-world experiences. “If you want to be a good employee, find a situation that mimics those settings,” says Deming. “Practice the thing you want to do, instead of learning about it.”

Deming suggests that colleges and universities ask students to work collaboratively in the classroom and pursue internships and volunteer opportunities outside of it. Students should also look for critical growth opportunities within their extracurricular activities, rather than just viewing them as resume-fillers. Clubs and sports teams can equip students with valuable teamwork skills, if students choose to focus on those dynamics.

Finally, suggests Deming, students should be diversifying their interests, so that they can be useful to different groups of people. “Try to be good at a lot of different things, and particularly things that don’t often go together,” suggests Deming. Students with unusual combinations of skills, such as computer programming and writing, will become employees with valuable assets to bring to the table, to no matter what type of team they’re working on.

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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.