The US economy is as strong as its workforce. To this end, it’s vital we equip students with the skills they need to succeed in an economy with changing and evolving needs. This need to prepare future workers for their careers was the driving force behind the rise of STEM education in the early 2010s. However, focusing solely on technical skills still left a substantial skills gap between what students were learning and what employers needed from their workers.
Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the way to bridge this gap and teach kids the skills they need to succeed in their careers, as well as lead happier, more fulfilled lives in general.
SEL is the process through which people learn skills to develop healthy identities, manage emotions, achieve goals, feel and show empathy, build healthy relationships and make responsible decisions.
In other words, social-emotional learning teaches emotional intelligence and how to be happy.
So what does SEL and emotional intelligence have to do with the current skills gap faced by recent graduates and the companies looking to hire them?
The Current Skills Gap
The National Network of Business and Industry Associations has identified a set of skills someone should have to be considered employable. These “common employability skills” fall into four categories
- Personal skills
- People skills
- Workplace skills
- Applied knowledge
You were probably quick to notice that three of those four skill groups are what many would consider “life skills”. Meaning, they’re skills that aren’t related to technical knowledge or competence.
These personal, people and workplace skills are, instead, related to a person’s ability to function as an individual, as part of a team and as part of a larger organization.
However, many US businesses are struggling to find candidates for open jobs that possess these skills. In fact, in one survey, half of employers struggle to find qualified recent graduates to fill their job vacancies. Despite possessing the necessary technical skills, these recent grads lack the ability to communicate, adapt, make decisions and solve problems.
We are not doing an effective job of preparing young Americans to start their careers and many of these prospective workers are ill-equipped for the workplace:
- 31% of employers find it difficult to find qualified workers
- More than half of manufacturers and business CEOs have serious problems finding workers with skills necessary to succeed in the workplace
- According to manufacturers, the number one skill deficiency is problem solving
What’s more, the number of skills required to be successful upon entering the workforce has grown over the past half decade and will likely continue to grow.
- In 2016, a survey sponsored by Microsoft of online jobs boards identified 62 skills required for “high opportunity” (high-growth/high-wage) jobs
- This is up from 37 skills needed in 2013
- “Oral and written communication skills” and “problem solving” are most sought-after skills for high opportunity jobs
- Of the top 20 skills identified, only two (Microsoft Office and Microsoft PowerPoint) are technical skills or applied knowledge
All of these stats and figures add up to one simple conclusion:
Our education system is not preparing students to be successful personally or professionally upon graduation.
In order to prepare students to meet the needs of employers, we need to ensure:
- They are equipped to work and communicate with a diverse range of customers and coworkers
- They are able to self-motivate, self-direct and adapt to changing employer-employee relationships
- They see beyond specific tasks to the “bigger picture”
- They work well independently and as part of team and often with limited guidance from higher-ups
- They are willing and able to take initiative to function effectively in a complex business organizations and structures
SEL Offers Benefits for Employers & Employees
Fortunately, if we look at all of the most in-demand skills employers want from workers, as well as the needs of graduates as they enter the workforce, we see a significant overlap between those skills and the five core competencies taught by social-emotional learning.
Let’s take a look at the five core competencies of social-emotional learning:
- Self awareness: Can you recognize your emotions and their impact on your behavior?
- Self management: Are you able to regulate your thoughts, feelings and behaviors in different situations?
- Social awareness: Do you understand social norms for behavior? Can you empathize with people from diverse backgrounds? Are you able to recognize sources of support in your life?
- Relationship skills: Are you able to establish and maintain healthy relationships with different people?
- Responsible decision-making: Can you realistically evaluate the possible consequences of an action and make decisions based on social and ethical norms? Do you consider the impact of your actions on the well-being of others as well as yourself?
Now, let’s consider some the key skills identified by the Department of Education as necessary for success in the workplace:
- Sound decision making: Students differentiate and assess multiple approaches and options.
- Understands teamwork: Students are able to work with a partner or in groups, contributing fairly to the assignment and showing respect for team members by listening to and considering all ideas. Students negotiate to resolve conflicts.
- Demonstrates self-discipline and responsibility: Students actively participate, asking and answering questions and completing assignments.
- Responds to customer needs: Students help others understand tasks, find resources and fulfill roles.
- Respect individuals: Students respond supportively to team members’ ideas and contributions and work well with others. Students engage in active listening.
Compared to the core skills taught by social-emotional learning, it’s easy to see the clear convergence between the two groups.
In fact, the ability to work as a team is the top quality businesses look for in recent college grads, ahead of analytical and quantitative skills. And since 1980 there has been a strong, steady decline in jobs requiring high math and low social skills. Almost all job growth in that time has been in occupations requiring high EQ and social skills.
These skills that are so key to employability and success in business are directly taught in SEL curricula.
Investing in SEL Brings Success
So how do we support SEL so that students are graduating with the skills businesses need from their workers?
We do this by treating SEL today like we did with STEM back in 2011.
In the decade following the US Chamber’s Case for Being Bold report, corporations invested more than $1 billion funding STEM awareness and education. If that money were spent developing SEL programs and curricula, that would return up to $10 billion (more more) in economic growth.
The groundwork for bringing SEL into schools exists today in a developing industry of researchers, technology companies and service providers. Business leaders, like they were in 2011, are in the perfect spot to provide these advocates the resources and support they need to bring SEL education to schools at all levels.