Project aims to teach soft skills

MARIETTA — Once known as “soft skills,” they are now in hard demand among employers.

The abilities to effectively communicate, solve problems, adapt to changing situations, take responsibility for decisions and actions, think critically and have concern for fellow humans now are right up there with English, math, social studies and history as parts of education considered essential by employers and post-secondary schools.

The six characteristics make up the primary goals of Portrait of a Graduate, a project led by Building Bridges to Careers and supported by public schools in Washington County, businesses and community agencies, from which about 40 representatives including a panel comprised from Dimex, Solvay, Memorial Health System, Moran Construction and Marietta College met last Thursday to discuss the next steps in the Portraits project.

“Our purpose is to move from Portrait to practice,” BB2C executive director Tasha Werry told the group. “This Portrait is the culmination of a whole series of meetings, from March to June, involving input from about 300 people, several months of conversations among the school districts, the career center, Washington State Community College, Marietta College. We’ve gone through this process – now what are we going to do?”

Panel members said their firms have development programs in place for employees who want to move into higher paying positions with greater skills and more responsibility, but they need some basic material to work with in the people they hire.

“Yes, we have those programs (addressing the Portraits characteristics), but I wish we didn’t have to,” said Wally Kandel of Solvay Specialty Polymers. “We had to develop these things because people didn’t possess those skills coming in. Compared to the people we hired 15 years ago, they might have better computer skills, but not communications and critical thinking.”

Jeff Knowlton from Dimex agreed.

“People seeking jobs with us at least need to be able to communicate at the interview. We do offer programs for our manufacturing workers, we pay for the skill and they make more money and become more valuable for us, but they really need to be critical thinkers and good communicators when we get them,” he said.

The meeting broke up into small groups after the panel presentation, discussing ways in which the Portrait characteristics are manifested in students, ways that schools and communities can help students build the competencies, and the next steps to be taken to move the Portraits characteristics into action.

Ideas could be heard brewing at the tables.

“I give them a packet of these directions, but I can’t make them use, things like how to talk to people, how to dress,” Career Center graduation pathway specialist Shari Elfine said.

“How do we teach this? How do we test for it?” a teacher in another group said.

The groups delivered their conclusions to Werry after a 20-minute discussion. Abby Motter, a teacher from Fort Frye, said it would be helpful to begin incorporating the language of the Portraits characteristics into school life.

“Our group talked about students being coachable or trainable, giving them feedback based on the vocabulary of the Portrait, like, ‘You demonstrated critical thinking when you did that,'” she said. “And those are lessons that could come from people other than employers or teachers. Some students, for example, would respond better if they heard it from a coach.”

Andy Kuhn, executive director of the Southeastern Ohio Port Authority, pushed a similar point.

“The Portrait indicators, these are critical in kids, it gives them an opportunity to show things like, ‘This is how I demonstrated adaptability today,’ start that early and keep it going through the grades, make it a common language in the community,” he said.

Werry said the findings from the meeting will be compiled and examined for more concrete recommendations to come in a couple of months. The Portraits project here will continue its consultation with Battelle for Children, the national group that created the Portraits concept, she said.