The most important skill for middle class workers isn’t being taught in American schools

Plays nicely with others.
Plays nicely with others.
Image: Reuters/Andrew Wong
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US students are judged by how well they score on math, reading and science tests. US educators are assessed by their student’s improvement on those tests. The US labor market, however, is increasingly placing a premium on pleasant personalities. Schools that focus narrowly on cognitive skills without teaching social skills may be overlooking a key component to workplace success.

Research from the Harvard Economist David Deming shows that, since 1980, the proportion of jobs calling for social skill-related tasks rose much faster (pdf) than jobs calling for basic math and reading. In other words, as the labor market has changed, a lot more Americans are finding themselves working at places like Starbucks coffee shops than at Ford manufacturing plants. Deming estimates that, from 1980 to 2012, the proportion of jobs that called for math tasks increased by 5% while routine tasks (repetitive assignments that don’t require analysis) declined by 10%. Meanwhile, jobs calling for social tasks and service tasks increased by over 15%.

The relationship between social skills and economic success is a relatively new phenomena, it’s impact varies from generation to generation. It’s rose up from a changing labor market, a US economy, like others around the world, that abandoned manufacturing and left a huge swath of baby boomers out of work with a set of skills that had become obsolete.

A recent study (pdf) from The Hamilton Project, an initiative of the Brookings Institution, points out that while social skills had almost no impact on likelihood of future employment for those born in the late 1950s and early 1960s, they have large employment effects for those born in the early 1980s.

Researchers measured social skills by examining survey responses to several questions about extroversion. People now in their 60s who scored higher on the survey had 0.5% point increase in the likelihood of being employed (the calculation is based on standard deviation.) For the generation in their 30s today, a higher score meant a 2.6% point higher likelihood of being employed. In contrast, the researchers found that the importance of cognitive skills to employment has barely changed.

Social skills may seem harder to teach in school than traditional subjects, like math and science, but this is actually not so. A vast literature of research suggests that social and emotional skills can be taught. School-based interventions that teach students mindfulness and how to manage stress show significant effects and the long-term financial impact of these programs can be large. The research of Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman showed that early childhood programs focused on non-cognitive development lead to higher earnings, lower unemployment rates, and lower crime levels.

The US labor market increasingly rewards social skills. An American education system adapted to that reality would be better for economic growth and, for the students of today who will enter the workforce of tomorrow.