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Paying lip service to career readiness

This article was originally published in the Carolina Journal on April 2, 2015.


For today’s students ― tomorrow’s earners ― communication skills are money in the job bank. Communication skills now outrank reading, math, teamwork, and even science proficiency as work force must-haves.

So says Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel of 3,000-plus adults: Surveyed recently about which skills they deemed “most important for children to get ahead in the world today,” adults gave communication top honors.

Turns out, this trend panel is right on target. Recruiters for the world’s most successful companies say they want new hires who are masterful communicators. On the latest Corporate Recruiters Survey from the Graduate Management Admission Council, owner of the GMAT, recruiters for some 600 companies ― including 36 Fortune 100 firms ― listed proficiency in oral communication as the most-desired skill in a job candidate.

Should this marketplace reality affect classrooms? K-12 educators today talk incessantly about ensuring students are career-ready. If good communication is the secret to workplace success, are we, literally, putting our money where our mouth is?

New research suggests the balance sheet might come up short. Immersion in digital media may have a hidden cost: undermining children’s “EQ,” or emotional intelligence quotient ― a critical component of effective communication skills. Arguably trickier to teach and measure than algorithms or algebra, such interpersonal “soft skills” get their boost from in-person, not screen-based, interactions.

Published recently in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, research from UCLA scientists linked digital media use with a diminished ability to identify human emotions. Researchers evaluated 105 California sixth-graders who were similar in their daily use of smartphones, computers, television, and video games.

All students were assessed in their baseline ability to recognize emotion in facial expressions and nonverbal interactions. Half were sent for five days to nature camp with no access to technology; the other half attended school and maintained normal media habits.

At the experiment’s end, tech-free preteens demonstrated significantly more improvement in their ability to read emotions than students remaining in a digital, media-rich environment.Senior author and UCLA psychology professor Patricia Greenfield hopes these findings spark more balanced discussions about technology’s impact on interpersonal skills, especially as schools embrace digital immersion.

“Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs. Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues ― losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people ― is one of the costs,” she noted in a press release.

Should we swipe less and speak more? Yes. But digital media also offer compelling opportunities for enhancing and customizing education. Plus, the ability to leverage information and communication technologies and platforms effectively is a non-negotiable component of work force communication today.

It’s time, though, for a thoughtful, holistic examination of how best to use digital media for readiness, whether in school, career, or life. Ironically, in viewing children primarily as human capital (and digital immersion as one of the best investments), we may be depriving them of the skills they need most for success in work and life.

We also should acknowledge that there is much we don’t know about screen saturation’s effects on children. Parents and educators would be wise to set and model healthy limits, allocating abundant screen-free time for talking and listening. Human relationships and face-to-face interactions, not screens, teach us how to understand one another, and thus, how to communicate well.

Paying lip service to career readiness is not enough. Developing soft skills is hard work, face to face. But training children to be empathic, powerful communicators yields huge dividends ― in and out of the marketplace.

Kristen Blair

Kristen Blair is a communications consultant and Chapel Hill-based education writer. She serves as the communications director for the North Carolina Coalition for Charter Schools.