A recent survey indicated that seven of the 10 most requested capabilities in job postings were skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, or leadership. Employers request these skills nearly four times more frequently than the top five technical or “hard” skills. Companies are increasingly saying that they prefer to teach technical skills on the job but want students to come to the table with a host of competencies often called “durable skills” for their ability to outlast rapid changes in technology and for their portability. These skills, also called transversal skills, which students retain when they change jobs or career paths, are essential to the future of our workforce and society.
Despite the clear call from employers, students are still entering the workforce without those competencies. In a 2022 study conducted by the global online recruiting company, Monster, 91% of employers reported struggling to fill a position because of a skills gap, up by four percentage points from just a year earlier. Many of the skills that students were lacking were durable skills.
If you ask most educators whether their institutions teach these skills, they will most certainly respond that they are; but If you ask them to point out where in their curricula they teach and assess these competencies, they will not be able to do so. Some so-called interdisciplinary general education courses focus on helping students develop skills like critical thinking and communication. Still, students are expected to assimilate these skills without them being explicitly taught.
Three Reasons Why Durable Skills Are Still Overlooked
There are a variety of reasons durable skills are overlooked in university curricula.
- First, most institutions are organized in disciplinary silos and produce graduates with degrees in a specific academic discipline. Durable, transversal skills do not fit neatly into this structure. With such rigidity, it is impossible to teach and assess these skills without a cohesive effort among departments and intentionality on the part of the institution.
- Second, durable skills cannot be universally taught and measured without a clear learning taxonomy, which most universities lack. When these competencies do not have clear definitions and are not explicitly tracked across disciplines, it is impossible to gauge whether students are learning them.
- Lastly, summative assessment methods used at most universities, such as final exams and papers, are designed to measure student recall of content, not durable skills. Such competencies must be tracked using formative assessment, where student progress is measured and built upon over time.
For instance, business majors are rarely taught the fundamentals of communication intentionally, although they are crucial when negotiating a high-stakes global business deal. Similarly, engineering majors rarely learn collaboration skills, though they often have to work in teams to solve problems.
The key to successfully teaching durable, transversal skills is to apply them across multiple contexts and disciplines and have students practice them over time. This creates deep learning and makes these concepts a habit of the mind, which can then be applied in new, unlearned contexts.
“Wisdom is knowing what to do in a system that you have never encountered before,” said Ben Nelson, Founder, and Chief Executive Officer of Minerva Project, at an Inter-American Development Bank summit earlier this year. “Today, the entire point of getting a human being prepared for life is to enable them to apply what they have learned in one context to another.”
It is time that our higher education ecosystem responds to this market need and intentionally teaches these durable skills rather than leave them to happenstance.
How to Integrate Durable Skills Into the Curricula
At Minerva Project, we have worked with universities worldwide to integrate durable, transversal skills into their curricula. Here are four tips on how this can be done effectively:
- Convene a diverse group of stakeholders who are devoted to transforming the curriculum. It is crucial to include faculty and administrators from various backgrounds who are deeply committed to creating new, interdisciplinary programs and willing to challenge the status quo. One of our partners, the University of Miami, created a new team of 12 Academic Innovation Fellows with representation from the disciplines of art history, communications, engineering, law, business, education, and medicine, to develop a new interdisciplinary undergraduate degree program.
- Identify and define durable skills that are relevant to your institution based on the educational goals you want to achieve. Consider skills that align with your institution’s goals and mission and those that will help make students marketable after they graduate. Getting feedback from individual employers about crucial competencies is important, but so is gathering and analyzing large-scale data points from the market. Include foundational as well as discipline-specific competencies.
- Incorporate these skills intentionally into your curriculum. Construct a learning taxonomy that intentionally addresses these skills and interweaves them throughout classes, as well as the instruction and assessment approach. Ensure learning outcomes are addressed multiple times and in different contexts so students have better practice at those skills and retention of material. Our partner, the new Mexican university, Universidad de la Libertad, ensured that the taxonomy cuts across all courses offered.
- Create a system of assessment that directly assesses the skills that have been identified. A formative assessment approach ensures that students are getting feedback as they are learning and applying specific skills, instead of encouraging rote memorization and cramming for tests. By clearly defining learning objectives early on in this process and creating scoring that repeat across courses, students have a better understanding of what they are learning and how it is being assessed, which makes it easier to apply these skills in real-world, unfamiliar contexts.
With technology evolving at an unprecedented pace and employers asking for workers with a robust set of durable skills, now more than ever, it is the responsibility of universities to step up and meet these demands.
To learn more about how to integrate durable, transversal skills into your curriculum, download the white paper. You can also learn more about disrupting education and economic opportunities in this blog. And you can watch the recording of Nelson’s appearance at the IDB Skills for Youth summit here.