I watched a great American Football game on TV the other night between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. It was close, into the fourth quarter and the Giants had the ball. The two teams lined up on about the 50 yard mark. A snap pass back through the legs to the Giants quarterback and the forwards got into their dance of obstructing tackling and generally giving the running backs a chance to get up the field to receive the ball while at the same time making space for the quarterback to throw.
Hawking had run up the right hand touch and was approaching the in-goal area. He looked back over his shoulder to see the ball approaching high, it was going to go over his head. By now he was square on to the ball facing back up the field. He threw himself high into the air and backwards. His outstretched arm was out behind him and with impeccable judgment he caught the ball, blind, with three finger tips, crashed on his back to the ground and claimed a touchdown.
It was a miracle play that was to be replayed over and over and which will make highlights packages for years to come. The commentators voiced what everyone had thought. “How had he done that?” “Have you ever seen such a touchdown?” etc. etc.
But the real revelation came in the post-match interview with the coach and of course that play got plenty of mention. “How had he done that?” the host repeated to be told by the coach “You know, at the end of each practice, when everyone else has gone off the field, Hawking stays out there and practises just that.”
It struck me that there is a lesson here for us. Just the day before I had a conversation with Professor Mike Kirst at Stanford about the evaluation and assessment of career path activity and he outlined the problems that they were facing in assessing and evaluating the soft skills, the employability skills etc, in career path programmes.
The issue is that these skills are not really learned but rather are internalized over time just like the instinctive skills that led to Hawking’s touchdown. Moments of brilliance do not simply happen once, they come from practice that make the skills part of our being. Top sports coaches understand this.
Do institutions that are focused on career path activity actually practice the very skills that employers are asking for? Employers are clear in stating what they want. How might providers respond?
Employers say: “I want them to turn up every day!”
What attention do providers pay to attendance? What records are kept and how is such important behaviour reported? What happens when lectures and tutorials are skipped? Tolerance is not serving students well who expect to be employed in settings that have zero tolerance.
Employers say: “I want them to be on time!
What attention is paid to punctuality? To starting on time? Working until the end of the session? We need to show that time is a resource which needs to be used fully and well.
Employers say: “They have to complete tasks and in a timely way?”
Do we insist on this? Do we emphasise the importance of deadlines? Do we reward the behaviours that we want?
Employers say: “They have to have the technical skills to do the job.”
This is an easy one for providers because if the courses are current and are regularly refreshed, taught in industry standard facilities with the rigour of the work place, then having the credential should attest to this. This is the bread and butter work of the institution.
Employers say: “They have to be free of drugs and alcohol issues.”
Again, this is an easy one for providers since most institutions insist on just that. But do we make it clear just why we have a zero tolerance for it. Do we have a zero tolerance in our institutions.
Employers say: “They have to be appropriately presented, dressed appropriately, no garish disfiguring tattoos and piercings.”
Well, would it be a step too far to suggest that business students should dress appropriately for the business world while they are students? Students who study auto engineering, those in food and beverage, those who chef and many others do. But do we have established standards for those who work in “ordinary” clothes?
And honesty, reliability, working in teams, resilience and a whole lot more.
You see, if training institutions practised these soft skills so that they became instinctive, a guarantee could be given to employers that graduates had these attributes. Over time it would be known that graduates from such an institution were worth taking on because they had a set of learned behaviours expected of professionals in the field and which will be seen by the employer as the mark of a new employee who is likely to be worth investing in..
And this would solve the issue of testing and assessing and evaluating the soft skills.
One final suggestion. If it is important that many occupations require those entering to have a driver’s licence why are institutions largely silent on the matter and why cannot a very early indication be made to students that over the one, two, or three years of the course they would do well to get one.
For that matter, are the requisite soft skills packaged and explained as something that employers are looking for?