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Soft Skills

Can soft skills be taught and do they matter in the workplace?

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This is a story of two scientists. The first one is Bob. Too many of us know a brilliant scientist or engineer like Bob, who cannot articulate the value of his work. Bob’s research has the potential to solve a pressing environmental problem, but tragically he struggles to describe the importance of his work – to his bosses, his clients, and his colleagues. Thus, his brilliant work will languish in a laboratory for years, not enriched by collaboration or expanded and completed by additional funding.

Then there is Susan, who is also a brilliant scientist. Susan has not even begun her laboratory studies, but she has a big idea and she knows how to tell its story. She has told that story to colleagues, clients, and users, building a customer base before she even starts her product development work. Susan’s story ends well – her technology is fielded and in use by 70 federal agencies.

Both scientists are brilliant, innovative, and technically competent. The difference between them is soft skills – Susan has developed her soft skills and Bob has not. This begs the question, can soft skills be taught, and if so, do they really matter in the workplace, particularly in a science and tec hnology workplace?

Researchers at MIT, University of Michigan, and Boston College recently studied this issue. They worked with a garment manufacturer in India to run a randomized controlled trial in five factories. They found that soft skills training had a 258% return on investment. Additionally, worker productivity climbed, attendance and retention increased, and even those in the control group who did not participate in the training benefited from “spillover” productivity. An additional finding from the study was that those who participated in the training enjoyed higher pay over time.

The conclusion: soft skills CAN be taught and soft skills DEFINITELY contribute to an organizaion’s bottom line. Read MIT researcher Namrata Kala’s paper, “The Skills to Pay the Bills: Returns to On-the-job Soft Skills Traininghere (pdf).

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