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Computers Don’t Have Social Skills

When you’re spending a career in an accounting firm, chances are high that you’re going to be asked to serve on a nonprofit board or two. Almost always, the nonprofit wants you to sit on a finance committee or to become the treasurer of the board. I’ve done that many times at this point in my life, and while it’s critically important to good governance and sustainability, there’s only so much accounting that can be exciting!

A few years ago, I started saying no to participating in finance and accounting capacities on boards and saying yes to roles where I could learn something new. This has proven to be a great decision. This year, I’ve had the privilege to join the Columbus Chamber of Commerce board and to chair a newly-formed Workforce Development Committee. Since January, I’ve had the opportunity to meet experts on the topic, to gain an understanding of the intersection of education and job readiness, and to try to wrap my head around how we can effectively engage our local employers as a resource to address the myriad of issues that face large segments of our workforce.

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend an education conference in Boston, where topics included developing talent and changing the focus of high schools to include work-based learning. The opening session featured a bright, young professor from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, David Deming. The subject of Dr. Deming’s presentation has been stuck in my head since then, and I think it’s something that all employers should take some time to consider: the growing importance of social skills in the labor market.

Employers today often say that students and younger workers have strong problem-solving and thinking skills but are lacking in social skills. In particular, there is a steady refrain that millennials lack “people skills” and “communication skills.” While this is certainly a gross overgeneralization of an entire generation, the reality is the need for social skills is increasing in the workplace. Jobs that require DOING are being replaced by jobs that require THINKING.

We all know that technology has replaced some old jobs – and that technology has created some new jobs. But, think about what technology CANNOT do social interaction, conversation and emotion are all uniquely human traits. And, even in a technology-based enterprise, these so-called “soft” skills are critical. People with strong social skills build better teams and get more done. So naturally, people with strong social skills are in high demand.

Today’s college admissions process and curriculum are largely based on analytical rather than social skills. We have convinced students to become subject matter experts, but as technology and business rapidly evolve, such expertise may be useful only temporarily over the course of a career. So, we should instead focus on teaching students and new workers that a successful career requires foundational skills that can be transferred from one job to the next as the needs and demands of the workplace change over time. We should focus on strong communication skills, leadership and adaptability in our hiring and training processes. We should challenge our teams to do things they haven’t done before – or assign them tasks for which they have not been trained at all – to make them think. Job rotation programs can be very valuable in this endeavor, as cross-trained associates gain opportunities to learn and experience new things.

Going to that conference in Boston gave me that kind of new learning experience. I’ve been attending accounting and tax conferences for a long time. Participating in conversations with educators and nonprofit workforce development experts on a subject that is largely unknown to me was definitely a change of pace. It stretched my mind and made me think about some new things, as well as some old things in new ways.

Most of us can remember times in our careers when our skills were stretched, and while those might have been difficult assignments, we likely also recall these experiences as the time when we learned and grew professionally. Challenge yourself to provide those kinds of opportunities for others. Invest in the development of your team’s critical social skills. Think about it. The workplace of the future – your workplace – depends on it.

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