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Is There a Soft Skills Gap in the Trades?

Post by Neil Martin, education developer, teaching & learning institute, Selkirk College

Is there a soft skills gap in the trades? Before we attempt to answer that question, we must first understand what we mean by “soft skills” and their overall importance to industry in general. Soft skills are those which are uniquely human and cannot “be taught to machines or delegated to even the smartest robots in today’s manufacturing workplace” (see The Manufacturing Industry is Changing. Are the Workers?). According to the World Economic Forum, of the ten most in-demand skills in 2025, eight of them will be what we would describe as soft skills, five of which fall under the umbrella of problem-solving (see 5 things to know about the future of jobs).

It has been suggested that a Fourth Industrial Revolution in conjunction with a digital transformation is upon us, and “leaders and workers alike need to embrace a work environment that is expected to blend advanced technology and digital skills with uniquely human skills, to yield the highest level of productivity” (see The future of work in manufacturing). Employers clearly attach value to post-secondary qualifications, but they “are unlikely to be impressed by candidates unless they can demonstrate a certain degree of people-skills.” In a recent survey done of 2,000 employers in the U.S. by ManpowerGroup, “over 50% of organizations listed problem-solving, collaboration, customer service, and communication as the most valued skills” (see Does Higher Education Still Prepare People for Jobs?).

It seems very apparent that there is a soft skills gap, period, regardless of what sector we are talking about. But what about the trades sector, specifically?

Well, it seems that workers arrive on the job with sufficient technical skills, due to their training, but “employers are finding a soft skills gap and candidates who lack the ability to do one or more of the following: communicate effectively with others, take leadership on the job, strategize solutions, think creatively, manage unexpected changes, [and] understand the business behind plumbing, electrical, and HVAC service” (see How Soft Skills Can Advance Your Career in the Trades). Speaking specifically of the construction industry, Brandon Kinsey of Houston-based Kinsey Management states, “leaders who focus 100% on tactical skills are missing out on better-suited, well-rounded candidates,” and “organizations that focus on soft skills win” (see Soft Skills Are Building Blocks to Better Teams in the Construction Industry).

If soft skills are what employers are looking for, are schools doing enough to prepare individuals for the workforce? In an article for Auto Service World, Corinne Pohlmann, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business’s senior vice-president of national affairs, was quoted as saying, “Schools at the secondary and post-secondary level tend to be more focused on preparing youth for higher education instead of work. Too many young people enter the workforce without the critical soft skills employers look for, putting them at a serious disadvantage when they look for that foundational first job” (see ‘Soft skills’ lacking in young workers, report finds).

Are colleges that provide trades training bucking the trend and focusing on the critical soft skills that employers are looking for? In British Columbia, trades training is offered by a number of colleges and managed by the Industry Training Authority (ITA). Historically, ITA program outlines did not include clear objectives focusing on soft skills. Through the Harmonization process within the skilled trades, general soft skills within apprenticeship are beginning to be included in new program outlines. Undoubtedly, individual instructors throughout the province recognize the importance of soft skills and make a concerted effort to develop these skills within the ITA framework. Examples of program outlines where some of the harmonized trades have begun to incorporate changes with regard to soft skills can be found here and here.

Program frameworks don’t need to include courses on soft skills, as these skills are not developed in a vacuum. The development of soft skills must be integrated throughout programs and become as integral as the development of technical skills. They can’t be viewed as add-ons, or something we do if we have time. We can’t simply add a course called “Soft Skills” and think that that will address the issue. The development of soft skills needs to become an overarching outcome of every trades program, and clearly articulated learning objectives must be added to program outlines. Instructors don’t need extensive training to help students develop soft skills, as soft skill development comes as a result of practice. Students will become better problem solvers when given the opportunity to solve problems!

The need for a shift in the way we prepare our students for the working world is upon us, and it is incumbent on us to formally integrate soft skill development into our trades training programs.

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