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Students need real-world playing time to learn soft skills

I played soccer growing up. As a soccer player, I spent a lot of time mastering the technical aspects of the game: ball skills, dribbling, and shooting. With practice, these skills improved, but beyond the technical, there was another dimension to me developing into a stronger player, and that was learning the intangible skills.

These “soft” skills included things like working on a team, being prompt to practice, and working hard, and though they were not technical, understanding the soft skills is what improved my level of play most significantly. In fact, it was the soft skills that held their value off the field as well, translating into success across many other aspects of my life.

As we seek to better prepare students for college and career, I would argue the same is true for them. Yes, they need opportunities to work on the technical skills associated with specific careers, but if we really want to move the needle, we must also focus on the soft skills.

Work-based learning is the way we will achieve this objective.

Work-based learning strengthens the state’s talent pipeline by providing career awareness, career exploration, and real-world career experience to build technical and employability skills. On the technical side, North Carolina already has a lot of good things going on. We have strong career and technical education in our public schools, programs that are expanding back into middle school populations. The community college system continues to build on employer-led programs that give students hands-on training in very specific fields, even as early as high school.

But as a state, we are behind on the soft skills training, and I would argue that is because these skills cannot be taught effectively in a classroom (K-12 or higher education). Soft skills must be experienced in real-world work environments. This will require more employers engaging in the learning ecosystem, effectively helping to build our future talent pipeline.

Last week, my company hosted a teacher from Estes Hills Elementary School in our office. The goal was to give her insight into what a typical work-day is like in the world of strategic communications. We invited her to be a part of team meetings, briefed her on certain projects, and invited her to problem solve as we worked through the issues of the day. When asked what were the biggest takeaways from the experience, she did not say learning how to write a press release or create strategic communications plans. Instead, she spoke to the soft skills she saw in action: how to communicate with diverse groups of clients, how to run a meeting, and the importance of staying on schedule.

Expanding the soft-skills development opportunities that are available (and accessible) to North Carolina students, educators, and job-seekers is how we build stronger teams and ultimately a stronger state. Going back to high school, my soccer coaches could have spent hours telling me I needed to work hard, but discipline and commitment was something I had to experience first-hand. A teacher can tell nursing students about the fast-paced, diverse, and demanding environment of working a shift, but it is not possible to truly comprehend what that means until you experience your first shift.

I want to challenge employers, like myself, to step-in to work-based learning and create the opportunities for real-world “playing” time. We are the ones who can provide the game-day experiences.

These experiences cannot be recreated in a classroom and they are critical to the future of our companies, our employees, and our state.

Albert Eckel

Albert Eckel is the chair of the North Carolina Business Committee for Education.