If you were to take a survey of the American public and ask them what the most important job skill is, they’d probably prioritize work ethic-related skills. Timeliness, obedience, efficiency and other productivity-oriented skills are typically seen as essential to landing a job.
Yet, employers are increasingly indicating the need for a different set of skills necessary to succeed in the workplace. A business survey published last year by the Association of American Colleges and Universities shows that strong oral communication skills top employers’ list of desired traits in a new hire. The same survey shows that 40% of respondents said that recent college graduates were “well-prepared” to handle duties requiring those skills.
For good measure, the AACU’s previous employer survey in 2015 ranked oral communication as fifth, showing that the demand is on the rise.
What explains the simultaneous rise in demand for public speaking and communication and unpreparedness to capitalize on those skills? The demand can be explained by the rapid changes in the labor market happening as we speak. Automation is erasing the need for humans to do remedial, low-skilled jobs that require high school degrees. A recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute shows that nearly half of jobs could be automated by 2030. As technology grows, the jobs that will remain available will center around tasks that cannot be replicated by a robot — ones that require creativity, critical thinking, collaborative design and persuasion. In other words, “soft skills” like oral communication will make you more competitive as jobs that require “hard skills” go away.
Unfortunately, the world we live in isn’t ready to grapple with that reality. For one thing, our culture emphasizes work as a task-based, procedural activity. Work means doing things. Intangible skills that are evaluated on subjective metrics like how persuasive you are can be difficult for traditional workers to respect.
Our definition of work is reflecting itself in the skills we’re pursuing in school. In K-12 education, there is very little emphasis on soft-skills like communication at all. The word “homework” itself reflects the perspective that learning should be about the completion of tasks and the demonstration of knowledge, rather than becoming well-rounded and broadly applying a skillset.
At the collegiate level, which traditionally emphasizes the humanities, degrees that practice hard-skills are on the rise. Since the Great Recession, the number of STEM majors at American universities has grown by 43% between 2009-2010 and 2015-2016.
Once you begin putting the pieces together, it’s clear that we’re setting ourselves up for failure. Computation, task completion and traditional processing is better-done by robots (and cheaper). In other words, certified skills are becoming inflexible — when the demand goes away, so does your job. This means that if we want to make it out there, we need to train the next generation to think, not to work.
The solution, then, is clear: our education system must reflect the outside world. To do so, it needs to do two things.
First, it must reformat K-12 education to focus on public speaking and debate in the class. That can take the form of classes that explicitly teach public speaking and debate — Alaska’s Middle School Debate and Drama, Debate and Forensics programs suggest there is strong support and capacity for that to happen in our state.
But second, oracy education should also introduce oracy skills in traditional classes like biology and history. Instead of lecturing students and asking them to cough up the information for a test, they should learn to critically think about the issues being presented in their academic subjects. Picking apart the decisions America made in World War II and dissecting arguments for and against controversial subjects like climate change would teach kids how to think instead of what to think.
Likewise, collegiate education should shift towards building in constructive engagement and public speaking into their required courses to prepare students for the world outside.
The good news is that even if public speaking and oracy isn’t a desired trait in the occupation you choose (which is extremely unlikely down the road), learning to be a better thinker and speaker has benefits that go beyond the workplace. Oracy is a skill for life; you use it to build better relationships, make better decisions about information and solve problems of your own.
Oracy skills can also make school easier. As any debate student will tell you, students who do public speaking or debate as an extracurricular do better in school than those who don’t. They also demonstrate better behavior and are more likely to attend and graduate college. Why? Oracy teaches structured thinking, helping you learn to synthesize complex information into digestible ideas.
The evidence is clear: employers want problem solvers, advocates for their products and creative thinkers on their teams. It’s time for the education system to catch up by restructuring itself around skills that were once considered “soft” and should now be considered “fundamental.”