In the Game of Life: It’s Life Skills that Matter

By Catherine M. Millett

One of their monikers will always be the Class of 2020, also known as the COVID-19 generation. At a virtual celebration for such a student this spring, my friend was expressing how grateful he was to be at his son’s college graduation. You see he was supposed to be in lower Manhattan on 9/11 but he missed a work meeting to be with his wife and son on the first day of preschool. What incredible times in the United States’ history to bookmark a students’ education journey – 9/11 at the start and COVID-19 at for many will be the end. My friend and his son are just one example of the experiences that our students have lived through or witnessed and yet continued on with their education.

As in other seminal moments in U.S. history, now is the time to focus on what our graduates need, to ask how we can support them as they navigate the coming years and to ask ourselves what we will need to facilitate their success.

As we look ahead to the coming year and we think about their transitions— to college, to graduate or professional school, to work or perhaps even to a period of unemployment — we need to consider the skills that may serve them best in a rapidly changing work environment. To position graduates for success, we need to focus on their technical and academic skills coupled with life skills or social and emotional learning (SEL).

Corporate America is signaling us that they are looking for more well-rounded, whole employees. The students who are graduating have already shown us their technical and academic skills — they have the diplomas in their hands or mounted on the walls in their parents’ homes. A prospective college or university, employer or internship recruiter can easily establish what they achieved. What may take more time to find out about recent graduates is their ability to understand and navigate feelings, behaviors and interpersonal relationships.

From transcripts to test scores, so much of what our students are equipped to show us about who they are is two dimensional. Drawing on the work of the OECD, here are some SEL or life skills that could distinguish an applicant’s resume or a new hire’s performance.

Conscientiousness – getting things done, as required and in time. In both school and work there are assignments and deadlines. For example, employees often develop performance objectives and report on their accomplishments at the end of the year or meet specific milestones over the life of a project.

Openness to experience – exploring the world of things and ideas. In school and in work, intrinsic motivation to learn and create both individually and in teams will be valued.

Extraversion – enjoying and excelling in the company of others. In multiple learning and work situations, groups are the normative structure. Whether it be a work team, a faculty at a college or university or corporate America, teams typically have leaders and extraversion is a good predictor of leadership outcomes.

Agreeableness – concern for the well-being of others. This SEL or life skill is often associated with selected occupations such as service or nursing. In fact, we often refer to them as caring occupations. Another expression of agreeableness is in organizational citizenship, or the ways an employee contributes to their organization beyond the work they do. This is important to consider as 84% of paid employees in the U.S. work in enterprises that employ more than 20 people.

Emotional stability – having a calm and positive emotionality. Optimism and emotional control are skills that correlate with task performance and organizational citizenship. In certain professions or positions within a company this can be important to know about prospective employees. For example, where are the high-pressure areas of a company and are individuals who perform will in high-pressure situations working there?

Communication flows about SEL or life skills — whether they be downward or upward — are important. But how can new graduates communicate they have the desired skills, and how can employers signal the skills they want? For graduates, resumes and professional networking platforms are the starting place for graduates to amplify their skills, and portfolios present an expanded narrative of accomplishments. Preparation is also key, and it’s important to understand and have a plan what points are to be conveyed in an interview.

For employers, there are many opportunities to signal that SEL or life skills are integral to the hiring process. It starts with the job description and ensuring it is jargon free and lists concrete examples of what an employee will be expected to do, and how. Second, job applications should include short response questions that ask perspective employees to provide examples of relevant or needed skills. Third, interviews should be constructed to ask applicants to share examples of how they worked in teams, a pressure situation or an innovation that contributed to their team or organization’s success.

With the pace of change and disruption affecting both our workplaces and society, it is critical that we prepare the next generation of workers with the range of skills to navigate our new normal. What we are learning and appreciating more and more is that while foundational and technical skills are essential, it is our ability to take this journey together, as part of a team that enables us to thrive.

Catherine M. Millett is a senior research scientist in the Policy Evaluation and Research Center at ETS.