December 05, 2017

Technological innovation is advancing at a frantic pace, and it seems that every day we are reminded of the ever-widening gap between the technical skills that industry desperately needs, and the skills that current and prospective employees possess. MIT and other STEM universities are committed to giving students these tools

But there is another skills gap that receives less attention and which I believe is critically important, especially for students of engineering and science – the “soft” skills deficit. 

Soft skills include communications, leadership and the ability to work in teams. These are distinct from “hard” skills such as mastery of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), which generally receive a lot more recognition

To be clear, I am not downplaying the importance of technical skills; I’ve spent a great deal of my professional life teaching them to students! And there is no doubt that as a society we need to address the rising demand for this type of skills set.

But let’s not overlook the vital importance of soft skills, especially among young professionals. Let me draw on my own field of supply chain management to illustrate what I mean.

Imagine that senior management at a manufacturing company has identified an opportunity to cut costs by centralizing the procurement of freight transportation capacity. At present, each plant buys its own truck transportation services, which means that the company is unable to leverage the huge volumes of goods that it ships. A new, centralized procurement strategy is created, and a young manager is dispatched to convince seasoned procurement executives at each plant to adopt the new strategy. 

The junior manager is fresh out of graduate school and her knowledge of the latest procurement technology and management techniques is excellent. But she’s not a good communicator. 

Using mathematical programming techniques, the young professional demonstrates that the new procurement strategy is optimal. She even simulates “before” and “after” scenarios to demonstrate the potential impact of the new strategy and its robustness on various demand levels. The manager then puts together a decent PowerPoint presentation to make the case for adopting the strategy. But her message is flat and uninspiring, and easily drowned out by supporters of the status quo. Her mastery of the new procurement software acquired by Corporate is second to none, but she struggles to sell its merits to experienced plant managers.

This is just one small example of the kind of change management challenge that a young professional might encounter. If his armory of skills does not include effective communications, he is likely to struggle. 

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