Sought-after Skills in Students - Part I: Communication Skills

A significant number of articles I’ve read lately tout the advantages of pursuing a major and/or job in the STEM field. As the parent of three children, I often find myself wanting to encourage my kids to develop an interest in these subjects. The rational part of me says they need to pursue something that truly interests them. But the other part of me – the one that’s concerned about their ability to get a job after graduation – that part says they need to focus on something STEM-related; something that’s in demand and for which employers are actively seeking.

Although the urge to encourage them to pursue an “in demand” field of study is strong, I know that majoring in such a field is not a guarantee of a job upon graduation. In fact, some of the most sought after skills by employers are those “soft skills” (non-technical skills) that are often overlooked in the career preparation process. According to the Job Outlook 2016 report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), verbal communication was ranked by employers as the most important skill candidates should have.

In thinking back to my days of college recruiting, I interviewed hundreds of students from excellent universities with STEM majors. In order to get onto my interview schedule, students not only had to have a technical major, but also had to have a minimum GPA of 3.0. It would seem, at first glance, that these students had everything they needed for success – a reputable school, a STEM major and a good GPA. Yet, despite this, only a small portion of those interviewed received offers of employment. Why?

The simple fact was most students were unable to convey their potential value to me in an interview. On the surface, every student on my schedule had everything I was looking for. But, when we sat down to talk about their experiences, skills and accomplishments, most students were at a loss as to how to communicate that information to me in an effective and efficient manner. They may have developed strong technical skills during their education, but in a service-oriented culture that places a high value on teamwork, I needed to find candidates that not only would be able to meet the technical demands of their job but also be able to communicate information to a team comprising a wide variety of members – including those from non-technical departments. In fact, finding candidates with exceptional communication skills was so infrequent that one company I worked for would conclude an interview with such a candidate with an on-the-spot offer.

Communication skills – like career preparation – is often thought of as one of those things you “pick up” during your time in school. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be the case. Numerous employer surveys over the last few years indicate that students are graduating with the technical skills needed to do a job, but are woefully lacking in the soft skills necessary to be successful in those jobs.

So what should we, as parents or coaches/counselors, be doing to help our students if we think they may be struggling in this area? Here are a few tips:

1. Guide your student in the art of Listening. So often, we think we’re listening, when in reality we’re just waiting to talk. Listening is more than just hearing. It requires full concentration, paying attention to not only the words the other person is saying, but also taking note of the tone of voice, facial expressions and body language.

Fully engaged listening is especially important in an interview situation. There was an obvious difference between those candidates who were truly listening to the information I offered and the questions I asked, and the candidates that were waiting to deliver their pre-rehearsed answers. The former were able to ask questions to clarify things they didn’t understand, develop answers that addressed the questions asked, and even engage in two-way conversations with me. The latter simply made a few statements that may or may not have been related to the questions I asked, and then…stopped.

2. Encourage your student to take time to think before responding. We live in such a fast-paced world that the idea of pausing to consider and compose an appropriate response may seem like a foreign idea to some. However, encouraging your student to take a few moments to organize his thoughts before vocalizing them can significantly improve his communication efforts.

In an interview situation, there is an even greater sense of pressure to answer immediately. Many candidates feel as if taking time to compose their response will actually hurt them. In my experience, however, those candidates that asked for a moment to think about the question and mentally search through their experiences for an appropriate example to use in their answer were by far more impressive than those candidates that blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

3. Let your student know it’s okay to ask for clarification. It’s okay if your student doesn’t understand something someone is trying to explain to her. But it’s her responsibility to let the other person know she needs clarification. This is especially true in an interview situation. I would much rather have had a candidate ask me to repeat or explain a question, than have that candidate respond with an answer that never really addressed the question asked.

4. Advise your student to check for understanding. Paying attention to non-verbal feedback – facial expressions and body language – is an important part of the communication process. This can help your student tune in to the other person’s understanding of his message. If he has any concerns that his listener is misunderstanding him, he should check. A simple, “Does that make sense?” offers the other person the opportunity to express any questions he or she may have about his message.

In past interviews, I’ve had students respond to a question and then check in with me to make sure I understood their answer (most likely as a result of the confused look on my face.) By taking a moment to confirm my understanding, or lack thereof, they were ensuring their message was being received correctly - even if it meant rephrasing their answer to help me understand.

There are many additional ways to improve verbal communication, but by sharing these suggestions with your students, they’ll be on their way to adding one of the most sought-after soft skills to their own skill set.

As for encouraging my own children toward a STEM major…I think we’ll discuss the merits of that as we sit around the dinner table, addressing the pros and cons, how the various majors match up with their interests, listening to each other's thoughts on the topic…in other words, improving our communication skills.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at

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