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The 3 Skills Employers Need That Schools Aren’t Teaching

Employers consistently cite three skills new employees don’t have. Educational models need to change to equip the next-generation workforce with the ability to communicate, problem-solve and consider the future.

by Mark Siegel / August 28, 2020

One key duty of schools is to teach students the skills they need to get and hold a job as well as be successful in a competitive business environment. Such success, the rationale goes, creates stability, social respect, self-provision and general satisfaction. Schools generally still fail to teach three essential points, however, which leaves students at an enormous disadvantage.


At any business level, the better the communication is, the better it is for all aspects of the company. There is higher trust, higher morale, and a higher level of efficiency. That, in turn, generally translates to higher productivity and a more competitive product or service. To be fully understood actually puts a smile on people’s faces. For these reasons, businesses understandably look for leaders and team members who are excellent communicators. 

But professionals across industries regularly complain that people entering the workforce cannot speak or write clearly. Although factors like technology might play a big role in the deficiency, people also blame both K-12 and higher education institutions for not taking responsibility for communication instruction — in particular, not taking it down to a one-on-one level.

There are two underlying issues here. First, contemporary schools generally allow teachers to talk too much. This comes from an overreliance on traditional, authoritarian models of education where the teacher stands as the primary resource for students and delivers information in a lecture style. To really learn communication skills, students must have the opportunity to engage in two-way conversations. So we must transform classrooms with student-centered, interactive, hands-on models and acknowledge that what students have to say is just as important as what the teachers might offer.

Secondly, students need to learn how to argue properly. Not yell and scream, but clearly provide reasons or evidence to support a proposed action or policy. This involves the ability to analyze and compare information, come to a logical conclusion, and provide a clear rationale. This relies heavily on critical thinking strategies and logic, which students simply don’t learn when the classroom is oriented around simply repeating what appears in textbooks. It takes the same kind of practice as shooting hoops or playing a musical instrument. But it also necessitates fundamental social skills, such as being able to stay cool-headed and respectful regardless of where the debate might go. This requires schools to establish cultures where students truly trust the teachers and feel comfortable enough to speak their minds independently, and where teachers understand and address community-specific hurdles, defenses, and triggers.

This can all be taught by teaching students the powerful magic of the word “because.” To propose the purchase of a new fleet of cars made by company A is worthless. To propose the purchase of cars by company A because company A cars have high consumer ratings, excellent gas mileage, and a good safety record is the start of an effective discussion. “Because” surfaces reasoning and allows different viewpoints to be examined. But the proper use of this simple argument style takes time to learn and use in a variety of settings. The traditional classroom needs to be transformed so that students get the time and guidance they each need to develop and use basic argumentation and logic skills — which are absolutely critical in the world of business.


Business is entirely based on the concept of solving issues for customers, whether those issues relate to everyday needs or larger concerns like environmental impacts. And there are many problems a customer faces in just one transaction. They may have the problem of distinguishing different product specifications, where to get refills, which line to stand in, or how to follow unique instructions. And the business that recognizes and solves all of a customer’s problems is always very successful. But do we teach students that they will be solving problems all day long? Do we teach them how to solve problems correctly?

Most companies pride themselves on innovation, which means not only finding an answer but finding an answer people have never used or seen before. Every solution, from iPhones to Uber, relies on this creative impulse. Do we really teach creativity and design-minded thinking to solve all levels of problems? Do we teach them to solve problems in a way that doesn’t create more problems? While leaders are increasingly encouraging workers to be more self-directed and innovative, companies also want workers to be able to play well with others, since team members usually must pool their skills, rarely working to solve issues all by themselves.

Modern schools unfortunately often short-circuit the collaborative, creative process businesses want by artificially constraining problem-solving. For example, teachers set unrealistic limits on how much time students have to finish a problem-solving activity. They can also create picture-perfect setups where everything goes exactly to plan, which robs students of the chance to think on their feet, pivot, and respond to the unexpected on the fly.

Even straight-A students, who are usually used to being right and getting a lot of praise from teachers for following expectations and rules, can have trouble at work and make employers reluctant to hire them. With a simple search on the topic of top students and success, you’ll find headlines like “Why Google doesn’t care about hiring top college graduates,” or “Great Students Don’t Necessarily Make Great Employees—Here’s Why,” or “What Straight-A Students Get Wrong.”

There are many factors that contribute to this conclusion. Some find that these students don’t work well with others because they can’t get into the groove of supporting what the group believes is a better answer than theirs. Others argue that straight-A students are conformists, that some take only easy classes and avoid risks, and many are often missing out socially.

But to create the business leaders we need, we must ensure that students are free to find solutions without limits. To this end, our schools need to be much more flexible in how they allow students to tackle work.

Consideration of the Future

Much of business concentrates on mitigating potential risks while seizing opportunities. Put more simply, leaders constantly think about what the future can bring and how they can ensure the best possible outcome. They are challenged to identify paths and then choose one to walk with conviction even if there is no precedent, and they think about how jobs and industries are going to evolve in the context of competitive growth.

But in school, most students don’t really learn to think about the future or monitor change beyond the next music or fashion trend. On a systemic level, school is highly predictable. Students learn that they will progress from one level to the next, for example. Teachers tell them exactly what their day, week, month, or school year will look like, and they choose materials (including those about current events) and make decisions for the students. So students don’t really get to experience thinking about the future without being overwhelmed.

To fix this, we must encourage educators to sit down with students and stop teaching from the front of the room. We must revamp schools so students can look forward critically on their own, keep track of what’s happening or likely to happen, and understand shifts in all areas under rapid change — including politics, economics, AI, big data, social policy, medical trends, and health provision systems. Students will be living and working in a world we can’t predict, which is why it’s so crucial that we adequately equip them to navigate a world of rapid change and to create and predict their own future.

Students have looked to schools to gain the skills they need for centuries. We still have room to grow in terms of what we can offer our children, particularly when it comes to communication, problem solving, and consideration of the future. Rather than continuing to rely on ineffective, outdated models, let’s restructure education now to fill these gaps and properly prepare students for the world and their future.

Mark Siegel is assistant headmaster at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore., where he’s been since 1974. He has headed the Oregon Federation of Independent Schools since 1988 and served 25 years on the board of the Council for American Private Education. He's served on Oregon Department of Education task forces and helps public and private schools transition to proficiency-based student-centered models. He travels the country advocating for private education and for proficiency-based education, urging the shift from factory-model schools to more personalized, student-centered programs. 


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