Sunday, June 18, 2006

Soft Skills

I've just completed a round of interviews over 2 weeks for the position of web application developers. There were some 200 applications and less than 20 were shortlisted. Taking away those who rejected interview appointments for one reason or another, I met up with some 12 candidates and have already made offers to 4 of them, with another 2 on a "keep-in-view" mode.

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.

“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.”
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.

"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, 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.


Anonymous said...

Tony, how do you define degrees from "top universities" and those from "weak universities?"

Also, what's your take on graduates from overseas universities, which are not necessarily from top schools (e.g. those ranked above 40 in the UK) who spent some years overseas (either a twinning 2+1 / 1+2 or entire 3 yrs)? Will you as an employer value the foreign experience?

Anonymous said...

Soft skills have very much to do with EQ.

The good news is, according to the author of the book on EQ, the ability to acquire EQ grows with age.

I would contend that "grows with age" is synonymous to maturity, ability to observe and learn/response from social experiences, etc.

So, how do we impart soft skills to graduates?

There is where the co-curricula activiites come in.

They must immerse in some kind of activities (apart from attending lectures) to actually observe first hand the social surroundings/social world in student bodies/uniformed bodies?

The power relations, social behaviours...

Things like these which cannot be taught in classroom.

That draws the fine line between a social inept adult and a social adept adult.


Anonymous said...

First our raw IQ
then our developed EQ
then they queue for us
(head hunters)

Anonymous said...

First time being here and find it interesting. Well written and the comments are just great as well. I do agree with surfwarrior that communication & leadership skill can be learned. It’s all a matter of whether one wanted to or not and the best thing is, the training doesn’t have to cost much and are readily available to the general public. I am talking about the Toastmaster program. Any sizeable town would very probably have several chapters. The motto of the Toastmaster said it all “To provide a mutually supportive and positive learning environment in which every member has the opportunity to develop communication and leadership skills, which in turn foster self-confidence and personal growth.


Anonymous said...

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.

In contrast with Tony, I think it is a good idea to introduce it as part of the syllabus. But as an examination subject, they have to do a thorough study on its practicality. Many students who are not aware of the importance of leadership skills in his career, would prefer to be the "followers" when getting involved in co-curricular activities both in and out of school. Some are natural leaders, some are not, and they don't know "the how", perhaps "lack of confidence" to lead, or could be due to "lack of interests" in giving ideas and brainstorming activities. But all these can be taught and made aware in school, especially if it is a tought subject with practical assignments.

If the only way to obtain "soft skills" is through co-curricular activities, most of the students will choose to be the "followers". They were given the chance, but because its optional, the easiest path would be "follower", its just human nature. However, if the students must do a practical assignment that will determine his marks, that will also test his leadership, human interaction skills, then the students will be more "alert" of the importance of "soft skills". Any kind of skills can be trained, the lecturers have to do some research and with the help of some of the caring society or even within the school, it is possible to come up with the practical assignments. Make the assignments interesting, maybe a "Apprentice"-like kind of game, would really benefit the students.

Just my 2 cents of ideas.

Anonymous said...

..pretty / handsome face ( depends who are interviewing ) and pleasant disposition are final deciding factors considering all things equal..Rest of skills ..on the job training lah..

..inspired :)

clk said...

Soft skills can be taught and learnt as well. However, at the end of the day it is the student who decides whether he/she will practice what was preached.

In this context, I wish to use the sales people as an analogy. If you have intention in becoming an MLM distributor or an life-insurance agent, you will surely be introduce to the many seminars and talks about improving you salesmanship skills to help you become successful. Softskills are taught to hundreds if not thousands of adults year-in year-out but do you all know the success rate despite hrs of training, brain-washing, talks, seminars, motivational talks etc.?

At the end of the day success really depends on the individual. Successful individuals need not be taught formally, they can learn themselves...

Can you teach someone to be street smart for example? Perhaps mentoring and hand-guiding can help?

WY said...


while i understand that being a busy CEO, it's understandable that you would want to shortlist as few people as possible, and reduce your 'hiring cost' as much as possible. However, frankly, i think your measure of intelligence is absolutely biased towards the so-called top universities and also exam-centric mindset.

While i am not contesting the fact that top universities do have top graduates, i am arguing for the fact that so-called moderate or low-class universities do have excellent graduates too. Some of us can't afford oversea educations, nor good nuff to score 5As in STPM to get into good local universities. Given our financial limitation, we are fored to go to those so called low class universities.

Secondly, my contention is against your second class lower div cut off point. Frankly, i have seen many, many good employees and colleagues with merely 2nd lower or even third class. It's unfair to just 'cut off' at that point. oh well, again..who cares right = being an employer.

Anonymous said...

Well my cousin got third class and just a general degree from a local private uni here in Malaysia, but she's doing so well in Singapore now as a software engineer in an international company.

Anonymous said...

What happened to the various schemes ( which newspapers advertised; subsidising RM600/- p.m. ( for min. 6 months duration )for unemployed graduates to learn the supposedly soft skills from mushrooming training centres some time back? Subsequently, these centres have grown to want to become UC?

..inspired :)

Anonymous said...

The topic about training schemes for unemployed graduates has been earlier highlighted by Tony way back in April last year..

..inspired :)

Anonymous said...

Education, knowledge, training + practice SHORTEN your path to success including being street wise but not all the time you want to be street smart (see stories below)! However, the limit to where you can go all depends on your natural IQ and EQ.

Yes, someone can be taught to become street smart. How quick a person can absorb the knowledge is another question. Will a person able to handle new problem well, promptly, and ethically yet another question. And has a lot to do with his natural IQ and EQ.

In fact, every knowledge in this entire universe can be taught! Like someone mentioned, it just a "knowledge transfer". How quick can a person absorb has a lot to do with his natural IQ and EQ. How quick a person can relate theories and adopt into practice is individual dependent. Some requires guidance, some not.

What is meant by street smart?
"is a word meaning having shrewd resourcefulness needed to survive in an urban environment" an explaination from Wikipedia.

A question, what would have done if you were in a situation of High Court Judge Syed Ahmad Idid (please read his stories here and here)?

He chose not become "street-smart" but he made the right choice.

I believe if you were to teach "street-smart" as a subject. You don't just teach them the survival skills, but also ethics. Otherwise, what's the point of education?

Personally, I'm not voting "soft skill" as an exam based subject. But a formal education in school would be helpful to the youngsters.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with Tomatoinc's statement that not only top universities produce top graduates. Frankly speaking, I graduated from Uni. Malaysia Sabah (UMS) and i know many still doubt the quality of this institution untill now. However, having graduated 6 years ago, I'm curently working for a top MNC as a marketing manager. As for my peers from the same batch, at least 30% can be found working for ExxonMobil, Shell, Petronas and Schlumberger.

I would like to point out that everyone should be given a fair chance .

Anonymous said...

Soft skills... Hard skills... all nonsense.. What is lacking in our undergraduates is a sense of self determination. When I was working in Singapore, I was surrounded by SAF (Singaporean Army Forces) personnel. Everyone is with the army. That is how soft you can get!