5 soft skills facilitated by the pandemic

5 soft skills facilitated by the pandemic

Soft skills are seen as important for graduate employability and are now embedded in many curricula in a variety of ways. Indeed, higher education institutions need to develop students’ awareness of the value of soft skills and train them to develop these essential skills as a means to adapt to a continuously fluctuating job market.

With the widespread move to online teaching, has the pandemic negatively impacted the key learning objective of cultivating soft skills – or does perhaps just the opposite hold true? Has COVID-19 facilitated the emergence of new soft skills? If so, how may these ‘pandemic skills’ be taught and assessed – and eventually be exploited by young graduates applying for jobs?

Soft skills

‘Soft skills’, traditionally viewed as the opposite of ‘hard skills’, have come to be considered more as essentially ‘human skills’. Over time, these abilities have come to be defined as the type of competencies that we need for operating successfully in the ‘real world’, for example, by employing empathy in communication.

It is no wonder that companies evaluate job applicants on the basis of such crucial abilities. What employers label ‘employability skills’ mainly fall into two categories: the core competencies that encompass interpersonal aptitude, communication skills, critical thinking, ethics and teamwork; and the professional skills such as leadership that are fully career development-oriented.

‘Emotional intelligence’ (EQ) has for the last five years or so progressively become the new paradigm that higher education institutions need to focus on, teach and assess. Emotional intelligence is defined as the cerebral faculties used to detect, comprehend and deal with personal and interpersonal feelings. In other words, EQ is about the aptitude to manage emotional states.

But let’s face it: emotional intelligence has always been quite difficult to teach and assess, and the shifting learning environments of the pandemic will only have reinforced this difficulty. How can emotions be communicated and evaluated online? How can you teach and evaluate learners hidden behind their cameras? Moreover, with teaching and learning moving back towards ‘normal’, how will learners handle their emotional states when they return to a more traditional in-person environment?

Pandemic Skills

Accordingly, we will have to pay attention to a new series of skills that online teaching has spawned.

So far, we can already identify five ‘pandemic skills’ that distance learning has boosted:

  1. Self-motivation: How does the learner deal with isolation and get internal resources to keep motivation sustained? Distance learning challenges the learner’s capacity to keep focused and motivated. As a consequence, self-motivation is key.
  2. Adaptability: The new constraints introduced by distance learning are a test of learners’ flexibility. Is the learner ready to accept change and adopt a positive attitude? This amounts to a capacity to adapt to a new learning environment.
  3. Technical appetite: In this day and age, a demonstrated interest in and ability to use various new technologies is crucial.
  4. Trust building: As participants in distance learning often become quite invisible, students are urged to try to be active learners. It is about building a trust relationship at a distance. Learners will need to prove that they are really and wisely involved. Distance learning is thus about the capacity to be visible, to stand out in a clever and balanced way. Note that this may be particularly tough for some learners from different origins and backgrounds.
  5. Non-verbal communication: A lot of the cultural context is lost in remote learning. As direct contacts with learners and between learners are hard to forge at a distance, most of the non-verbal communication will disappear and participants will be deprived of it. How will learners interpret silence and any other non-verbal elements of communication? This is particularly challenging when dealing with students from high-context cultures.

Impact on future employment

We might expect employers to pay particular attention to skills like these and question students about the ‘pandemic skills’ they could have acquired. Questions like how they have survived the pandemic and how they coped with and handled various obstacles will certainly arouse recruiters’ interests. Graduates could reflect on these five skills as a means to reach beyond their core employability skills.

Certainly students will need to reflect on this and take time for this introspection process. Higher education institutions will need to make sure there is enough space for this and progressively integrate the pandemic skills as aptitudes to consider and duly assess.

Guillaume Blaess
FranceAssociate Professor and Deputy Director of International Relations with Audencia Business School