STEM, short for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, encompasses a group of disciplines that are among the highest-earning and most industrially productive in the world. In recent years, technology companies have grown to dominate the economy, putting smartphones and other gadgets in the pockets of billions of people. Technology has also come to be indispensable to a diverse and wide-ranging field of sectors from agriculture to warfare. In this age of technological frenzy STEM has become the darling child of governments and universities alike, and is generally seen by prospective students and their parents as a safe, reliable career choice, promising respect as well as high wages and benefits.
This almost laser-like focus on technical skills has produced a kind of blind spot when it comes to what are commonly referred to as ‘soft skills:’ creativity, communication, relationship-building, and curiosity, among others. Recently, CEOs and hiring managers are increasingly listing soft skills like these as desirable items on a prospective employee’s resume, even something that could be the deciding factor between two similar-looking resumes. It’s true that specialization has its benefits. Someone who intensely studies a single subject with a narrow focus will be able to probe more deeply into their area of expertise than someone who takes a broad interest in many subjects, and specialists can complement each others’ work, forming teams with a broad collective expertise that also benefits from the depth of each member’s individual knowledge. And yet, there is a catch, which should be increasingly clear: in order to effectively work together as a team or communicate their findings to others, these experts need to possess effective communication skills.
It’s this need for effective communication in all walks of life, even among specialists, that has led to educators calling for more focus on soft skills in their curricula. Currently, many colleges still have minimum or even non-existent general education requirements focusing on soft skills for their STEM majors. Many colleges don’t require STEM majors to take a foreign language, for instance, and students are able to coast through a single required introductory essay-writing class with mediocre grades. Many college-age STEM majors (and even, sometimes, their professors) may be quick to criticize classes in which there are no wrong answers and all opinions are given equal weight, but these environments encourage communication that it turns out can be crucial in the business world. Studies have shown that potentially billions of dollars are lost every year in a multitude of economic sectors due to communication issues, from canceled projects to demolished buildings and even airplane crashes.
Communication is not the only important soft skill, either. At the world’s top technology and engineering companies, it turns out that imagination and creativity are top-tier talents to have when walking in for an interview. Google allegedly values imagination as a make or break job skill, and it’s not hard to imagine why. Innovation requires imagination and creativity and that’s what most of today’s highest performing companies are hoping to do. Especially given the encroachment of artificial intelligence into the workforce, jobs that involve tedious, repetitive tasks are ripe for replacement by machines. The most important human skill is problem-solving, especially the kind that involves thinking outside the box and finding solutions or new ideas that may seem uncouth or even silly at first glance. One of the biggest hurdles to success for new engineers and scientists is the realization that plugging numbers into an equation and using a calculator to solve for X is a practice that exists only in the problem sets of textbooks, and even then, only at the lowest levels. What is important is not just the ability to figure out how to apply existing knowledge to a new situation, but to create new knowledge and devise new equations to explain new situations.
What this means for education may appear at first to be less than clear, but many educators argue that the solution is relatively straightforward. They believe that soft skills can be taught effectively, and even claim that teaching soft skills in engaging ways should be the teacher’s main responsibility in the classroom moving forward. They make a compelling argument: there is no shortage of information available to young people today, and there are more ways than ever to find it. Teachers can take advantage of students’ ability to navigate Wikipedia by using their limited time to foster better communication and creativity. It’s also best to start early; even primary school tutoring could help young children learn social and creative skills. If hard and soft skills are taught in tandem starting from a young age, children will be able to not only better retain their curiosity, but translate it into an effective problem-solving mindset as adults that can be indispensable for using technology to solve some of society’s most pressing dilemmas.