COVID has revealed the soft skills gap among America's youth: It's time we address it

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Even as the omicron wave recedes and Americans look to return to normal, we can see ripple effects from the pandemic that will be with us for years. In some cases, the long-term impacts of the pandemic mean we won’t “return to normal” at all. In the realm of our children’s education, we have the opportunity to make some shifts that will improve education outcomes both for students and our country.

For example, when learning shifted from schools to homes, parents had a view into their children’s education with unprecedented clarity. Parents now know not only what their kids are learning, but also what they’re not learning. When it comes to preparing students to be successful in college, in their careers, or in their roles as informed citizens, we’re failing terribly– the U.S. remains in 13th place globally when it comes to quality education.

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For years, business leaders and parents have questioned whether students were graduating from high school with the skills needed to succeed in college and beyond. The questions surrounding this skill gap have not been around hard skills or content knowledge, but rather durable soft skills.

Many employers are struggling to find stand-out entry-level candidates due to their lack of soft skills, and this is still a major hurdle for recruiters today, especially as they screen candidates coming out of the pandemic. Here’s the rub: The skills most sought after by scholarship selection committees, university admissions offices and employers are rarely directly taught in schools.

In a recent study, seven out of 10 most requested job skills in job postings were durable soft skills – and leadership and communication were the highest in-demand competencies. The study argues that “the long-term success of our economy, our country’s competitive advantage, and our national security requires improving educational outcomes.”

High school students required to wear masks.

High school students required to wear masks.
(iStock)

This suggests it is essential for students not only to master school subject matter, but to actively cultivate the skills that will serve them in college and the workplace. We know that to be successful at anything requires a lot of hard work and dedication, and yet we are sending our future off into the real world drastically unprepared. New graduates literally cannot afford to adopt a “learn as you go” mentality when it comes to developing these essential attributes. Durable soft skills are a key predictor of successfully getting your foot in the door and long-term career success. So why wait to start developing them?

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The pandemic has exacerbated these lingering concerns surrounding the soft skills gap. This is because our kids missed out on a crucial component of their education that is integral to cultivating soft skills and leadership – extracurricular activities and learning opportunities.

In fact, it is beyond the classroom where so many of these essential skills are often learned. Extracurricular activities like sports, camps, clubs, speech and debate, and more offer kids the opportunity to emerge as leaders and build their skills as communicators. Kids who participated in extracurriculars had better grades, better attendance, and overall better well-being. Without these programs in their full capacity, this generation of students missed out on leadership experiences needed to succeed in higher education and ultimately the workforce.

The lack of in-person leadership opportunities has also skewed this generation of high school students’ perception of important soft skills. Only 3% of high school students today value leadership as a necessary skill, when in fact it is one of the most high-demand skills that employers and colleges seek out. This mindset will not serve them well when they walk across the graduation stage and embark on their next stage.

Only 3% of high school students today value leadership as a necessary skill, when in fact it is one of the most high-demand skills that employers and colleges seek out.

The key is to impart these competencies well before the university, not after the fact in the midst of their job search. Would you ask a baseball player to learn to pitch as he is heading to a major league tryout? No, it takes years of practice to master a craft. The same is true of the skills that will drive success in school and throughout life. These skills need to be ingrained and exercised from a young age in order to set our children up for success. Unfortunately, the absence of formative after-school programs has stunted their growth in these areas. 

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That’s where we see an opportunity. For years the Reagan Foundation has offered award-winning programs focused on developing the next generation of engaging and informed young leaders. Now, we intend to take what we’ve learned about leadership and communication development, and offer it to any student in the country. We believe that we can help our country and our future by providing e-learning solutions to fill in these soft skill gaps that school closures have widened. We can lean on the accessibility of remote learning to help students bridge these gaps at their own pace and of their own volition.

As an educator, and as a father, I want my kids to be able to substantively and confidently answer the prompt, “Tell us about a time when you were a successful leader,” when it comes time to work on their college applications. I don’t want them to meaninglessly throw their transcripts at schools and hope for the best.

I want their confidence to reflect off the page and beyond into the real world, not have their confidence solely based on one numerical metric.

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Shaping our kids into leaders should be the standard, not the outlier.

Parents need to proactively integrate alternative programs in soft skills to supplement their child’s core curriculum – because the need for civic-minded young leaders has never been greater.

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