College students continue to eye the tech sector as a core route to a lucrative career, despite the avalanche of layoffs that have hit the sector lately. But educators and talent experts are concerned that the race to land a spot in hard-skill industries like tech, is coming at the expense of soft skills — still a must-have for any workplace.
“Engineering, technology, data analytics is absolutely huge right now,” said Dr. Larry G. Straub, associate professor of management at Newman University, and author and researcher who speaks to companies and organizations struggling to manage in increasingly convulsive environments. “We’ve had to create a new program around data analytics and we have a specialization in our MBA program. I know a lot of students who would like to go in those areas.”
A recent analysis by e-learning provider Forage found that students are prioritizing certain majors and skills to ensure an ROI on their education. Looking at the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s clear that the most popular college majors are in the most lucrative fields. That includes everything from business and health care to computer science and technology.
“Those fields are aligned with market demand and can lead to high-paying entry-level jobs in some of the fastest-growing industries,” said Jenna Bellassai, Forage’s lead data reporter. “The layoffs don’t indicate there will be a shortage in tech roles, because companies across industries need employees that have tech skills.”
It makes sense for Gen Z, who worry about the economy and their overall financial health, to choose a path that promises a solid salary, especially with the rising costs of college that make people question if it’s even worth it or if they should pursue an apprenticeship instead.
“The cost of college is so high, and then you’ll see a lot of students getting jobs that they didn’t even really need a degree for,” said Kelly Palmer, chief learning and talent officer at Degreed. “That debate continues to go on.”
According to the Education Data Initiative, the median debt in 2022 for a bachelor’s degree in computer and information sciences was $24,010. The median debt for a master’s degree in computer engineering was $42,650.
While people who do decide to pursue a degree continue to show interest in more lucrative careers, labor forecasts predict jobs in humanities, social sciences, history and education will have continued tepid growth and wage stagnation between 2021 and 2031. Employment in arts and design jobs, for instance, will grow 2% from 2021 to 2031, which is slower than the average growth rate across all occupations (5%), resulting in only 20,500 new jobs over the decade. During that same timeframe, employment in media and communication will grow 6% (68,600 new jobs). Employment in education, training, and library occupations will grow 7% (658,200 new jobs), slightly above the average.
It shows that students are focused on learning hard, marketable skills. Last year, 62% of all U.S. enrollments in Forage programs were in either technology or business-related programs. These programs generally emphasize technical skills like software architecture, data modeling and company analysis.
We can’t forget about soft skills
However, leaders are growing increasingly concerned that people are forgetting about soft skills – which range from teamwork to communication, time management, critical thinking and problem-solving. Some of these skills – for instance, communication and teamwork – are rustier since the pandemic forced the need for hybrid and remote working.
And it’s harder to pick them up as you go. When being in an office was the default work model, learning-by-osmosis, aka watching and learning from how others interact in the office, or speak with clients on the phone, was a given. That kind of unofficial shadowing has been all but eradicated in remote set ups. And yet interpersonal skills and good communication will always be crucial in work and life, and are often highly prized by employers.
But some educators worry that a combination of younger generations growing up glued to digital devices and choosing an industry that focuses on hard skills may result in them struggling to make inroads in a workforce already struggling with showcasing soft skills in a hybrid or remote setup. It could set up young professionals for failure.
“We’re seeing a lot of strain on the liberal arts, the soft skills majors,” said Straub. “Students are steering away from those because they’re concerned they might not be able to make enough money to get the payback on the investment of their college education.”
Straub has noticed a change in soft skills in his own classroom throughout the years. He says students aren’t as talkative or as engaged as they were five years ago. “It’s a concern,” said Straub. “All of us are so engrossed in our technology right now and it makes it easy for us to not engage with others. It’s a very real threat against soft skills.”
Palmer agrees and says that even though students get the college degree, they don’t always have the skills, or don’t know how to translate those skills “Human skills, soft skills, are going to be more important to the future of work than a lot of the technical skills, and more transferable,” said Palmer. “But, who is offering those? You can argue that the liberal arts majors are getting more of those skills than probably anybody else through critical thinking and analysis.”
That’s why Straub regularly tells his students it’s worth doubling down on learning and practicing those soft skills. Without the soft skills, folks could lose the humanity in technology or business or other career paths.
“Morals and ethics should go with business enterprises,” said Staub, who points to the triple bottom line, which is the belief that companies should commit to focusing as much on social and environmental concerns as they do on profits.
So while younger professionals today are interested in careers that might land them a six-figure salary quicker than the generations before them, experts say it’s absolutely crucial that the skills learned in the humanities are taken into consideration too.