Social Skills

“If it’s just technical skill, there’s a reasonable chance it can be automated, and if it’s just being empathetic or flexible, there’s an infinite supply of people, so a job won’t be well paid,” said David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s the interaction of both that is virtuous.”

Mr. Deming’s conclusions are supported by previous research, including that of Mr. Autor. Mr. Autor has written that traditional middle-skill jobs, like clerical or factory work, have been hollowed out by technology. The new middle-skill jobs combine technical and interpersonal expertise, like physical therapy or general contracting.

James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, did groundbreaking work concluding that noncognitive skills like character, dependability and perseverance are as important as cognitive achievement. They can be taught, he said, yet American schools don’t necessarily do so.

These conclusions have been put into practice outside academia. Google researchers, for example, studied the company’s employees to determine what made the best manager. They assumed it would be technical expertise. Instead, it was people who made time for one-on-one meetings, helped employees work through problems and took an interest in their lives.

Mr. Deming’s study... measured the economic return of social skills, after controlling for factors like cognitive skill, years of education and occupation.

The extent to which jobs required social skills grew 24 percent between 1980 and 2012, he found, while jobs requiring repetitive tasks, like garbage collecting, and analytical tasks that don’t necessarily involve teamwork, like engineering, declined. ...

The decline in routine jobs has hit women harder than men. Yet women have more successfully transitioned into collaborative jobs like managers, doctors and professors.

That might be because, starting in infancy, females traditionally excel at things like social perceptiveness, emotional intelligence and working with others, Mr. Deming and other researchers say.

These conclusions do not mean traditional education has become unnecessary, researchers say — in fact, traditional school subjects are probably more necessary than ever to compete in the labor market. But some schools are experimenting with how to add social skills to the curriculum.

At many business and medical schools, students are assigned to small groups to complete their work. So-called flipped classrooms assign video lectures before class and reserve class for discussion or group work. The idea is that traditional lectures involve too little interaction and can be done just as well online.
- Claire Cain Miller, Why What You Learned in Preschool Is Crucial at Work, NYT, OCT. 16, 2015

Show php error messages