'Soft' skills, STEM education called musts in workforce

'Soft' skills, STEM education called musts in workforce

June 26th, 2012 by Kevin Hardy in News

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

While learning reading, writing and arithmetic is important, too many of today's students don't finish school with the "soft" skills needed to be successful in the workforce, state and business leaders said Monday.

Even when students leave school academically prepared in certain fields, business leaders say they often lack the more intangible qualities such as teamwork, critical thinking and interpersonal relations.

At a meeting Monday of the Southern Growth Policies Board, Gov. Bill Haslam and North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue said educators need to work with students on soft skills.

"There is no reason a third-grader doesn't know to look you in the eye when he or she is talking to you," Perdue said. "That's just something that's really important."

Dealing with office pages and North Carolina students, Perdue said she's seen plenty of students who lack such skills. But now the state is putting more of an emphasis on those skills in K-12 education, she said.

Too often, local companies are pursuing out-of-state or overseas workers because the local workforce isn't qualified, Haslam said.

This week's conference focused on ways to align the nation's public education system with workforce needs. Haslam said he plans to meet with Tennessee businesses big and small in coming months to better understand what they need out of high school and college graduates.

Haslam compared fixing the state's broken education system with fixing a train that's in motion.

"Our challenge is we can have all the theory, but we've got to educate kindergartners and Ph.D. students today," he said.

An online jobs database currently in the works eventually will help students and workers determine how many jobs are in a given field, he said.

"You just need to know when you get out: Here's how many psychology majors there are and here's how many jobs there are," he said. "And you can make the value decision yourself."

While no one can predict what the jobs of the future will look like, experts agree that, in addition to interpersonal skills, many new jobs also will rely on science, technology, engineering and math skills. That's why Tennessee's push in STEM education is so important, the governor said.

Hamilton County will open a STEM high school in August on the campus of Chattanooga State Community College, thanks in part to a $1.8 million state grant. At its maximum, the STEM school will hold about 300 students, just a dent in the county's 42,000 public school students.

That's why, Haslam said, the state is committed to spreading STEM skills through STEM-specific teacher training and mobile STEM education units that would help particularly in rural areas.

"While a STEM academy is great, we'll never cover enough numbers there to do what we need to," he said.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at 423-757-6249 or khardy@timesfreepress.com.