Soft Skills

Presidential Blog by Dr. Gerry Turcotte, President and Vice-Chancellor at St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi College, University of British Columbia

And where is the place of understanding?
Job 28: 20

I recently conducted a number of job interviews and the phrase soft skills appeared a number of times — occasionally from the candidates themselves, but mostly in written feedback from audience members. One respondent noted: ‘I’m delighted that candidate X has clearly demonstrated soft skills. She appears able to listen to others, to communicate effectively.’ When I first read through the feedback I accepted this without a second thought. After all, a professor or an administrator in a Liberal Arts university frequently relies on such definitions to define the importance of the work we do in the humanities.

‘Hard skills’ are often described as job-related tasks: woodworking for a carpenter, coding for an IT professional. This job requirement is then usually supplemented with skills that supposedly improve an applicant’s desirability — the soft skills such as interpersonal abilities, communication skills, creative thinking, work ethic. The Liberal Arts institutions often, and almost always, make a point of celebrating these as a mark of distinction to prove the worth of their degrees, especially in an age that tends to diminish the importance of the arts. And I have been a part of the soft skills bandwagon. Until now!

It occurred to me recently, in writing one of the many speeches that I deliver as a university president, that the very thought of labeling interpersonal or communication skills, creative thinking and an ability to collaborate with diverse groups — the very thought of labeling any of this as ‘soft’ is misleading, if not condescendingly wrong. There is nothing soft about encounter. There is nothing soft about listening well and bringing diverse viewpoints together. And there is definitely nothing soft about an ability to think creatively and outside the box by drawing on complex philosophies, theories and perspectives. On the contrary, these are the hardest skills.

A colleague once dismissed my work by stating, sarcastically, ‘Well, you could never build a bridge.’ And I remember thinking, ‘Yes, I can, and I do: between traumatized stakeholders in Aboriginal communities and the institutions that once oppressed them, between colleagues in competing departments, and between diverse and separated individuals and groups.’ This, surely, matters as well as the physical infrastructures other disciplines provide. Indeed, it is only diplomacy and communication that connect a divided world — and we see all too often the result when these are lacking.

So the next time someone says something about mastering the soft skills remember how very hard this is to do.

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