by Barry Waldman
Students graduating from college and graduate school today face a very different future than their counterparts did just three years ago.
Consider this: today’s graduates already know they may spend the bulk of their careers working from home. When they do commute to work, they are likely to be travelling in an electric vehicle, if not today then in the very near future.
They will be working with Millennials and Gen Zers who expect the workplace to cater to their needs, not the other way around, and who have the market power to demand it.
They will be working in factories run by engineers, not line workers, designing systems that can be operated by the touch of a button. They will work in office buildings without personal offices or cubicles because most employees work remotely.
They will be appealing to consumers who increasingly bend their shopping decisions around businesses’ commitment to being environmentally friendly and socially conscious. They will be working with management teams concerned with issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) like never before.
Soft Skills Trump Subject Expertise
The skills required in a post-Covid workplace will be familiar to anyone who participated in the workplace 10-20-and-30 years ago. And they will be totally different as well.
In the old days, subject expertise was the key to success. The more knowledgeable and skilled the engineer, accountant or insurance salesperson, the higher they rose in the company. Today, core skills are a pre-requisite to success. The differentiators are soft skills, says Trevor Crunelle, a former Naval officer, three-decade veteran of engineering and sales, and now The Growth Coach of the Lowcountry, an executive training and business effectiveness company.
Crunelle lists flexibility as the number one attribute he would be looking for in a new graduate. Is a potential employee’s mind facile enough, and are they emotionally prepared to pivot when conditions change, as they inevitably will? The last few years has been proof of the importance of flexibility, as masking, distancing, remote working and outdoor or remote delivery of services became critical to the survival of many businesses.
Like many business experts, Crunelle is looking for critical thinkers, people who are strategic and intentional in thought and action. Before they plan their tactics, they consider their goals and the strategies required to achieve them. Crunelle’s business coaching is built on a trademarked process that establishes a strategic plan for every aspect of a business. He says many managers are often strategic about their area of the business, but not about others.
“You need to build that mindset. A company may have a great marketing plan but nothing for employee development. You need to be strategic in each functional area,” he said.
Students should be learning to think strategically in graduate school, but that is not always the case. For years, businesses complained that their young employees were subject experts lacking critical thinking skills.
The term “emotional intelligence” was coined by researchers Peter Salovey and John Mayer in 1990 to describe the ability to process information about one’s own emotionsand other people’s. It’s also the ability to use this information to guide one’s own thoughts and behavior. In his 1996 book popularizing the concept, Daniel Goleman argued that EQ could be learned and practiced, and he urged that it be included in school curricula.
Crunelle believes EQ has always been critical to good management, but will increase in value as employees expect their employer to allow them to bring their whole selves to work and feel empowered to leave if they are dissatisfied. Fifty years ago, the boss told his subordinates what to do and they followed his orders… or else they got fired. Today, employees are not fungible, and they don’t consider themselves subordinates. Successful leaders today believe in servant leadership, focused on the growth and well-being of employees as the springboard to customer satisfaction.
Communication and Problem Solving
Other top skills often mentioned by business experts are communication and problem solving. Particularly in an increasingly diverse workplace, employees who can communicate with many different kinds of people will have the most success. Problem-solving is increasingly important in a complex workplace built on technology that few users understand.
Commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
Crunelle believes the recent focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) will endure and continue to challenge and inspire businesses and the people who work in them. “The basis is awareness, but it will require a strategic approach and real action,” he said. Younger members of the workforce, like those just graduating, may be best positioned to understand the impetus for DEI and approaches to succeed.In the next-gen workplace, soft skills will separate those who rise within organizations. The more higher education programs can teach these skills, the more success their graduates will have.