Do College Graduates Need Soft Skills?

It does not surprise anyone that graduates of four-year colleges have lower rates of unemployment – or employment in jobs that do not require a college education – than high school graduates or high school dropouts.  What has occasioned mild surprise are the tens of thousands of graduates of four-year colleges who cannot find full-time jobs that pay enough to keep up with the installments due on their student loans. Why can’t graduates of four-year colleges find good jobs? An obvious explanation for college graduates getting dead-end jobs or no jobs at is that they can’t write well or lack computer or other academic skills. Maybe they majored in subjects of no interest to potential employers or spent their college years pursuing fun instead of trying to acquire knowledge. Furthermore, the economy hasn’t been very good.

But an old-fashioned disqualifying characteristic is rarely mentioned: manners.   Some college graduates lose out in the job market because they have not learned soft skills that used to be considered essential: smiling pleasantly, saying “Please” and “Thank you,” avoiding four-letter Anglo-Saxon profanity except with agemates, and making an effort to be polite. That has changed. Nowadays, for instance, many male students consider it “cool” to get tattoos, to wear clothes too disreputable to be worn in an office, to avoid shaving or getting haircuts, and to walk and talk like hoodlums.  If asked, they would say that they know how to behave differently when applying for a job or working at one.  Surely some do, but some don’t.  About two weeks ago Rutgers University held a job fair at which graduating seniors seeking jobs came to talk with representatives of companies seeking new hires.  One senior who wanted to attend consulted the dress code provided by the organizers of the job fair.  He had a jacket, a tie, a clean shirt, and trousers; unfortunately though, he could not find shoes in his closet, only sneakers.  He put them on and set out.  He was stopped at the doorway to the event for his violation of the dress code.   Indignant about being excluded, he wrote a long, angry letter to the editor of the student newspaper, The Daily Targum.  He did not seem to realize that recruiters might be wary of a person wearing inappropriate footwear in the interview situation.  Maybe they would not think he could be counted on to be punctual, pleasant, report for work every day, and accept criticism graciously.  Soft skills may be more important than he thought.

Rutgers University does not offer a course in soft skills; transcripts do not contain a grade for “deportment.”  Nevertheless some Rutgers students have learned to be polite somewhere, perhaps from other students and from observing the behavior of their professors.  They hold doors open for people coming along behind them, especially older people.  They line up for campus buses in an orderly way.

Stipulate for a moment that soft skills are important to securing and holding onto good jobs.  Where are they learned? For many small children, a civilizing process starts with their parents.  If the parents are a married couple, their parents work in tandem rewarding good behavior, such as cooperating, and punishing bad behavior like using profane words.  Parents also teach soft skills by example; children observe what their parents say and don’t say around the dinner table. Primary-school teachers depend on receiving from parents children who are at least partially civilized, not only to teach them reading, writing, and arithmetic but also to further develop their soft skills. If children have not been partially civilized in the family, they will not be cooperative at school; school requires children to do things they don’t necessarily want to do.

Why didn’t their parents start to teach them soft skills? Some children do not learn soft skills in their families essentially because they did not start in a real family.  Wolves in a forest did not raise them, of course; they could not survive infancy without at least perfunctory feeding and care from adult human beings.  But some children are unfortunate enough to be the unintended byproducts of casual sexual encounters. Well-intentioned government welfare programs provide money for food and shelter, but government welfare programs are not good at inculcating soft skills.  Even mediocre parents are better teachers than children who raise themselves.  Not only do unintended-byproduct children miss the intellectual growth that accompanies the experience of being read to by nurturing parents; they also miss also lessons in manners, which are necessarily low on the agenda of low-income single mothers.  They have to teach themselves how to interact with other people. As a result, they may misbehave in the lower grades at school, they are a challenge to teachers who cannot start the civilizing process from scratch, only to reinforce what should have been started in the family.  If, as teenagers or adults, such children encounter a book entitled Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior: The Ultimate Handbook on Modern Etiquette, it would seem as strange to them as Confucian sayings written in Mandarin.

Like teachers, radio, movies, and, later, television also used to reinforce the civilizing process by portraying characters who behaved reasonably politely and never used well-known Anglo-Saxon profanity.  Wicked characters in stories had to end badly.  The mass media, including newspapers, served a double educational function.  Exposure to them helped children learn to read and write, but the mass media also taught a soft-skill lesson: how to speak and write politely in order to coexist amiably with friends, acquaintances, and, subsequently, with supervisors and colleagues at work.  That has changed. I recently watched a movie entitled “Knocked Up,” which had received unanimous praise from reviewers.  I lost count of the number of times the characters used the words, “fuck” and “shit,” merely to give a little emphasis to the points they were making.

To get back to the hypothesis raised at the beginning of this piece, some students  graduate from four-year colleges with a degree attesting to hard skills that good jobs require but lack the soft skills that are also necessary.  Woody Allen was exaggerating when he said, “80% of success is just showing up,” but he may have thrown light on one reason some college graduates have to settle for dead-end jobs.


  • Jackson Toby

    Jackson Toby is professor of sociology emeritus at Rutgers University, where he was director of the Institute for Criminological Research. He is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

2 thoughts on “Do College Graduates Need Soft Skills?

  1. Jackson Toby, a sociologist, is without a doubt one of the most knowledgeable and down to earth scholars one can possibly find within our colleges/universities.

  2. Personally, I think most of these problems will be solved once the baby boomers start dying off. There’s no culture clash with older generations once they’re dead.

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