Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Academic, non-academic skills go hand in hand

I was watching short films produced by our high school video production students recently and found that each one was moving in ways that school work rarely is. Some were funny, some were quite serious. Each one told a story that resonated with me because each one represented experiences that I have had, that most of us have had. Students were able to integrate personal experience into the work they were doing at school which clearly made it engaging for them. This work was not about completion or getting a grade. Yet they were developing both academic and non-academic skills and getting recognition for it. This is important.


The first reason… non-academic skills are as important as academic skills for educational and professional success.

Manpower Group, a multinational human resource consulting firm, conducts an annual talent survey with more than 40,000 employers worldwide. In 2013, despite the fact more than 10 million people in the United States were unemployed, nearly 40 percent of U.S. employers reported having difficulty filling jobs due to lack of technical competencies (hard, academic skills) and workplace competencies (soft, non-academic skills).

Technical expertise depends on education, training, and experience, and it tends to be domain specific. In other words, the technical expertise required for success in film production (understanding camera systems, lighting, software, etc.) doesn't necessarily translate to other professional fields.

Non-technical skills, however, cross disciplines and are widely recognized as essential for success in the workplace and life in general. A recent article published in the Journal of Labor Policy asserts that the evidence on the respective roles of various types of skills required by employers indicates that workplace competencies "play a larger role in determining wages than academic skills at most jobs." The ability to self-regulate, motivate, work with others, and persevere has more to do with general success in work than anything else.

The second reason… non-academic skills directly impact academic success. Performance on most tasks depends on a combination of cognitive abilities (abilities traditionally associated with general acquisition of knowledge), non-cognitive abilities (conscientiousness, perseverance, sociability, and curiosity), and incentives. The Texas Education Agency and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board have indicated these skills are important for academic success and college readiness. The state's College and Career Readiness Standards represent a broad range of knowledge and skills that students need to succeed in entry-level college courses, as well as in a wide range of majors and careers, and they include a set of cross-disciplinary skills that emphasize the development of strong academic behaviors supported by self-regulated learning abilities and perseverance; general problem-solving skills; inquiry and dialogue; developing and considering arguments and evidence for learning; reading, writing, researching, collecting and using data, and applying technology across the curriculum. Establishing a clear connection between the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills and these cross-disciplinary, non-technical skills is a crucial component of preparing students for college and the workforce.

Finally, non-cognitive... non-academic... non-technical skills (whatever you want to call them) can be learned and developed. In other words, non-technical skills can also be influenced by education, training, and experience. They are often a byproduct of activities aimed at achieving other goals including rigorous curriculum in schools to improve educational outcomes, training to improve occupational skills, and participation in activities that facilitate discipline, practice, and teamwork.

The high school film production students' recognition came in the form of first, second, and third place ribbons at the state SkillsUSA competition held in Corpus Christi last month. SkillsUSA is a career and technical student organization serving more than 320,000 high school and college students and professional members who are preparing for careers in trade, technical and skilled service occupations, including health occupations. While the recognition might be nice, and can contribute to student engagement, ribbons don't incentivize high level, creative work. The film students' work was clearly motivated by something more personal. To know what that is, you just have to watch the films.

The students who produced these short films are learning a great deal about the technical skills associated with the film and media production industry, skills that will serve them well as filmmakers and producers. They are also developing other skills that will serve them well as filmmakers, sales representatives, financial analysts, teachers, engineers, skilled trade workers, software developers, event planners, managers, information security analysts, or most other jobs including many that don't yet exist.
  • Heckman, J. & Kautz, T. (2012). Hard evidence on soft skills, Labor Economics, 19, 451-464.
  • Lerman, R. (2013) Are employability skills learned in U.S. youth education and training programs?, Journal of Labor Policy, 2(6) 1-20. 

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