Down on the Farm: Soft skills
There's talk in economic development circles these days of a "skills gap," the notion that people who graduate from high school or college aren't trained for the jobs that are available.
I can't imagine this. I wonder just what it is that today's kids can't do.
Most of them can type faster with their two thumbs than the rest of us can type with all our fingers. Most kids can jump on your computer and within a minute or two install a bunch of unnecessary software updates that render unfamiliar a machine which you thought you knew pretty well.
They can figure out all the buttons on the cameras, all the features on the iPods, all the gizmos on the cell phones and all the secrets of Facebook.
So, just what is it that today's kids can't do? What do businesses want schools to teach their students?
The missing skills have nothing to do with technology, it turns out.
Companies are now hungry for graduates who possess what are now called "soft skills."
As far as I can tell, "soft skills" is a fancy term for manners. Companies want to hire people who know how to look somebody in the eye, how to hold a conversation without staring at the floor, how to smile and execute a warm handshake.
Computer skills? Kids have them. People skills? They are apparently scarce. Soft skills sound pretty easy to those of us in the second half of our time here on earth, but apparently the younger generation is clueless.
I recently heard of a college student who, rather than meeting with his advisor directly, preferred to sit in the lobby and communicate via text message, even though the two were only a few feet apart.
That's not only a problem, it is just plain weird.
To be fair, as I recall the kids with whom I have spoken over the past several months, both college age and high school, every one of them was completely polite, even courtly. The only teen who got a bit snappy with me did so after I called her the wrong name for the third consecutive time. My excuse that "you all have the same hairdo, how am I supposed to tell you apart?" didn't go over real well.
Companies that call for "soft skills" make it seem like the college graduates they hired thirty years ago weren't a bit rough around the edges.
In many ways, I would argue, manners have improved in that time.
Think about smoking. Thirty years ago, people could blow smoke in your face and you were expected to take it with a smile and find them an ashtray to boot. Today, people who dare light up indoors are immediately assumed to be drunk and are subject to arrest.
I can't think of the last time I found a chaw of chewing tobacco in a drinking fountain. When I was in college, the football players left such deposits all the time.
People used to throw junk out the windows of cars without thinking forty years ago. The roadsides were littered with garbage. Today, people who litter are viewed as social misfits, unworthy to be included in polite conversation.
The problem is really with the gadgets. Modern rudeness usually has something to do with a gadget, and kids aren't the only guilty ones.
With a few basic rules of gadget etiquette, I think this whole alleged "soft skills" problem could be cleared up in a flash.
So, don't read your text message when you are conversing with a real human. Don't cruise the internet while you are on the phone. Don't walk, run or drive while immersed in your gadget.
Don't allow your gadget to make noise during meetings, concerts or plays. When your gadget does make noise, admit it and shut the thing off. Don't pretend it isn't yours and wait for it to stop.
Do not sit at the restaurant and send gadget messages to others at the table about others at the table. That's worse than a loud belch.
Probably the best way to practice your "soft skills" is to go for five minutes without looking at your gadget.
Look people in the eye. Say hello. Converse. After a week, try ten gadgetless minutes without looking at the gadget screen.
Be careful, as withdrawing too quickly from gadgetry can cause twitching.
In the end, however, the "soft skills" you gain might get you a job.