By Nisa Williams and Christina Nonnemacher
Perhaps author Adam Grant said it best on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “The irony of ‘soft skills’ is that they're often the hardest to master. Leadership, communication, collaboration, creativity and adaptability may not be technical, but they're increasingly vital. Behavioral, social and emotional skills are what make humans indispensable,” he wrote.
That was in 2021, before the launch of ChatGPT and before the BBC reported an estimated 300 million jobs could be lost to AI technology. While the outlook can seem bleak, there is reason to be optimistic if industries are willing to change, particularly higher education.
By focusing on “power skills,” such as self-awareness, self-management, interpersonal communication and social awareness, employers and higher education institutions can foster well-rounded and adaptable individuals who are better equipped to succeed in the workplace and beyond. When WGU intentionally invested in this area, employees reported increases in overall wellbeing and optimism levels and decreases in perceived stress levels.
Education is transformative by its nature and power skills are a significant piece of the puzzle when it comes to how educators can help students help themselves while moving through a transformative or challenging experience. These skills are indispensable, as Grant so powerfully captured. What is extraordinary is that power skills make graduates more marketable in the job market and helps them to do their job better. For example, America Succeeds published a report in 2021 titled The High Demand for Durable Skills, which included an analysis of over 82 million job postings. The report clearly conveyed that companies across all industries are seeking candidates who are highly equipped with durable/power skills.
Power skills, such as interpersonal communication – or more specifically relationship building, teamwork and collaboration – empathy or self-awareness, and other mindful habits, help us to not only be successful professionally, but also to have healthy families, communities and societies.
Unfortunately, this does not always work with a one-size-fits-all or one-and-done approach, such as a freshman seminar or a one-time mandatory training at the office, because it may not effectively address the ever-changing diverse needs and challenges of all students or workers. While this can be a good place to start, these skills should be consistently reinforced for them to be reliably applied or habitual.
In the workplace, employers would see the biggest ROI if they offered reoccurring professional development and trainings, not only with power skills as the headline topic, but by also weaving such skill-building into other corporate trainings, meetings and more. Infusing and modeling such skill building into corporate culture can positively transform individual employees, from the top down, and a workplace culture as a whole.
In an academic setting, the best way to help students develop these learned skills is to combine top quality modeling and coaching from faculty and staff throughout the learning journey with intentional integration across the curriculum. Taking care so that skills are relevant to the degree a student is pursuing and sought after by employers and focusing on practical application, versus theory, students develop abilities that will last a lifetime. These skills should not only be taught theoretically but also applied practically to develop abilities that will last a lifetime. WGU, one of the largest competency-based, nonprofit, online universities, has developed a systematic approach to developing a power skills framework that started not with its students, but with its employees.
Research shows that to effectively transfer and develop skills into an organization, you must start with its leaders. Working with the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, WGU adopted a train-the-trainer program with the first round of training launched in 2020 to a cohort of 750 managers across the academic organization. Over the last three years, roughly 4,500 employees, who live across the country and primarily work remotely, have received training in power skills, ranging from university leaders to faculty members to those who manage student support services.
The goal is to empower employees with a common language and set of techniques for navigating challenges in their own lives and for helping students persist through challenges and achieve academic and career success. The program has enabled leaders of the colleges, faculty leaders and program mentors, enrollment leaders, other students support services and managers to embody and model – and even coach resilience strategies – to their students during routine interactions, such as assisting a student with selecting an academic program or helping a student reframe their thoughts when they are struggling with taking an assessment by calming catastrophic thinking or sharing strategies around cultivating positive emotions to build resilience and confidence in their interactions.
As these trained employees interact and support students, they call on their power skills to lead by example. The degree to which the power skills framework positively impacted employees on a personal level is staggering and the degree to which faculty members and student services staff members feel more confident and equipped in engaging in conversations with students facing challenges is impressive.
Participants also reported an 85% increase in self-awareness, 68% increase in adaptability, 75% increase in sense of connection to colleagues and a 61% increase in engagement with work. Six months later, follow-up scores demonstrated that participants maintained resiliency. Not only did they learn strategies that have helped them to manage challenges and stress, but also, they have experienced lasting benefits from utilizing these strategies and mindsets.
Now, WGU is working systematically to incorporate power skills across its curriculum. The goal is to infuse transferable power skills throughout the learner journey to improve academic, career and life outcomes for students.
About the Authors: Nisa Williams is a senior social emotional learning analyst at WGU. Christina Nonnemacher is a senior social emotional learning analyst at WGU.