Hence it was sort of interesting when the Minister of Higher Education announced that public universities will be conducting "soft skills" modules for all undergraduates by the next in take.
Higher Education Minister Datuk Mustapa Mohamed said he was taking into consideration complaints from employers that graduates lacked soft skills.So how much did "soft skills" affect my decision making process? Before I go into that, do note that my criteria may differ from that of other employers, and it may vary slight depending on the position being offer.
“We take these views seriously, which is why we are introducing this new module for the new 2006/07 intake... My mission is to ensure our graduates have the necessary skills.”
"Soft skills" often relates to the abilities such as communication, team work and leadership skills. What I would typically include as part of the soft skills package include good manners as well as a positive and pleasant disposition. Soft skills are important to be eventually recruited by the employer.
When I first shortlisted my web application developer candidates for interview (using Jobstreet.com), the first criteria will have to be "intelligence". Unfortunately, the closest proxy to a measure of intelligence will have to be the university attended, the grades achieved for tertiary and secondary education. Those from top universities and consistently achieving top grades go straight automatically into the "shortlist" folder. Those with second-class lower type degrees as well as weak universities are automatically placed in the "reject" folders. This probably resulted in some 7-8 candidates in the shortlist folder, another 30 or so in the "to-be-reviewed" category, while the rest of the 150 candidates or so in the reject bin.
I'll then sift through the candidates in the "to-be-reviewed" further category in greater detail by reading their resumes, identifying leadership qualities from school activities, their personal write ups as well as their replies to a short essay question posed in the application. From there another 10 or so candidates are shortlisted and the rest placed in the "bin".
Finally the candidates are called for an interview in which I attempt to "extract" the candidates "soft skills" capabilities through both casual chat as well as more in-depth discussion on "technical" matter such as knowledge in object-oriented programming. The technical discussion is probably less to discover the candidates technical abilities (which I regard as given based on their academic performance), but their ability to relate these technical issues coherently in a verbal manner.
So, from the above, soft skills are only important to the extent that they help you differentiate yourself from other outstanding candidates (of which there are many). Soft skills on their own do not usually get you shortlisted for interviews for analytical and skills-based positions.
Hence as much as its correct for the Minister, Tok Pa, to emphasise on the need to strengthen undergraduates soft skills, it is their academic capabilities i.e., their critical thinking, analytical skills and knowledge acquired which are the key determinant of employment. This is the key aspects which are lacking in many of our undergraduates which results in a disproportionate number of unemployed undergraduates.
In addition, it is my opinion that "soft skills" can't really be taught as a course on its own. One picks up leadership qualities through participation in co-curricular activities both in and out of school. Similarly, one strengthens his or her communication skills through interaction with teachers and schoolmates from primary to tertiary institutions. "Soft skills" cannot be taught as a subject in a semester, much less as an examinable subject.
Instead, if the Ministry is indeed serious about strengthening the "soft skills" of the general undergraduate population, it is important to create a more conducive environment at our universities. It is a common criticism that our institutions of higher learning are overly paternalistic in nature, from the vague and draconian Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) to overzealous controls imposed by the student affairs departments. These measures literally encourage our undergraduates to remain well within their turtle shells.