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.