Preparing young people for the workplace requires social and emotional learning

In an increasingly digital and global society, the skills that matter for lifetime and career success are the social and emotional competencies that enable people to collaborate, solve problems, and adjust to change.

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Students leave William Wells High School in East Village at the end of the school day on Mar. 14.

Students leave William Wells High School in East Village at the end of the school day on Mar. 14.

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Today’s high school students are staring down a winding road toward successful adulthood. The pandemic has disrupted their learning and post-secondary plans. They are preparing for jobs that don’t yet exist and navigating a complex labor market that often rewards who you know over what you know. A new survey by the nonprofit YouthTruth found that high school students largely feel unprepared to enter the workforce.

Many are ambivalent about their plans for the future and uncertain about big decisions like entering college or starting a career. As one student put it, “I feel as if I had no time to figure out who or what I want to become…I am not prepared at all for what’s next to come with life.”

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These frustrations should prompt education leaders to rethink how we prepare students for future success. Education is not just about teaching students knowledge for college and jobs, but providing skills to help the next generation navigate a complex, rapidly-changing world.

In an increasingly digital and global society, the skills that matter for lifetime and career success are the social and emotional competencies that enable people to collaborate, solve problems, and adjust to change. Preparing students for the future of work requires social and emotional learning.

This shift is a long time coming. Workforce development programs were blindsided by the 21st century. The rapid pace of technological development and innovation has revolutionized industries. One 2018 study, conducted by market research firm Vanson Bourne for Dell Technologies, found that 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 don’t exist yet, making it all the more difficult to plan and prepare for a career. At the same time, youth who will enter the workforce in the coming years are more entrepreneurially-minded than previous generations and hungry for an education that engages them in real-world problem-solving.

Now, the seismic shifts caused by the pandemic have made workforce preparation harder. The shift to hybrid work has changed the skills needed for success and reduced the opportunities to build relationships with colleagues and learn from mentors.

So how can students best prepare for the future?

We don’t know what scientific developments or technological advances will require from new graduates in the next few decades. But we do know that social and emotional skills — effective communication and collaboration, the ability to persist toward goals while adapting to change, and the capacity to work together in diverse groups — will help young people navigate a rapidly-changing world.

Future work readiness depends upon social and emotional learning.

Businesses already know this. When my organization asked them which skills they look for in job applicants and often have trouble finding, employers didn’t prioritize technical know-how or industry expertise. Instead, they listed skills like communication, self-direction, the ability to work in teams, problem-solving, and integrity. In fact, LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends, a survey of over 5,000 talent professionals worldwide, found that 91% of employers believe social and emotional skills (which the study referred to as “soft skills”) are very important to the future of work.

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Schools can prepare students in a variety of ways. Career and technical education courses, service learning, job shadowing, mock interviews and mentorships are all ripe opportunities for students to practice reflection, relationship-building, teamwork and making decisions responsibly. My organization, CASEL, has started working with eight states to strategically integrate social and emotional learning with career and workforce development. We’re helping students develop future-ready skills they’ll need to succeed throughout their lives.

The next generation will enter careers reshaped by the pandemic, technological shifts, and their own entrepreneurial spirit. They’re looking to schools to help them navigate uncertainties and spark their sense of purpose. Our education system must prioritize social and emotional learning, for their careers but also for their future as a whole.

Aaliyah A. Samuel is the president and CEO of the nonprofit, nonpartisan CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.

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