Allison was deep into explaining her team’s target market at the 18th annual Smithtown Business Olympics at Smithtown High School West in New York earlier this month. She rattled off facts from her research, but I was already impressed by the quality of her team’s showmanship and their argument for why we, as pretend investors, should back their product idea: shoes with interchangeable heels.
As the night progressed, it became clear that this business competition was not really about concepts like the marketing mix or the SWOT analysis. Granted, these components are important to the students’ presentations, but they are only tools used to construct each team’s argument. This business competition is about soft skills: building a case, communicating, and working together - skills they need to win the competition as well as to have successful careers. The actual knowledge of business is less important.
The Smithtown Business Olympics challenges high school teams from the school district to develop a new product and present business pitches to local business leaders and administrators. Two-hundred students from Smithtown’s two high schools competed this year, with ideas ranging from a safer car brake light to a toy “pet string.” Allison’s team, the Cliques, won.
Six years ago, my team won Business Olympics and this year I was asked back to be a judge. From my new vantage point in the audience, I was able to discern between the students who had been through the program before and those who hadn’t. Many of the inexperienced teams read from notes, had poor presentation design, and generally lacked confidence in their ideas. Some students naturally excel in soft skills, but my experience that evening made me wonder what we are doing for those who still need to learn and practice them.
“This kind of work is really the kind of work we should be doing in schools,” said Smithtown Superintendent Dr. Anthony Annunziato. “It integrates so many of the skills that we believe as a society are necessary for students to succeed, whether it’s in college or in the workplace. It’s thinking critically, creatively, analytically—working collaboratively.”
Today’s employers agree. A study by the Conference Board, a nonpartisan business research organization, found employers rank “professionalism/work ethic,” “teamwork/collaboration,” and “oral communications” as the three most important applied skills needed by workforce entrants. Yet, over half of those entering the workforce after high school were found to be “deficiently prepared” in these areas. Four-year college graduates were better prepared, but only a quarter of this group was perceived to be “excellent” in many of the most important soft skills. One recruiter told the Wall Street Journal, “In real life, you have 10 minutes to present to management. If you can’t get the whole story in that time on two or three slides, you’re dead in your career.”
We know students need these soft skills, but they are not required for a high school diploma. Too often, classes in soft skills are relegated to the “electives” category and then placed first on the chopping block for cuts. In fact, Smithtown’s Career and Technical Education Department, which runs the Business Olympics program in addition to a wide range of business and technical electives, was in danger of being eliminated just last year. It was saved when the community protested its closure.
To ready our students for the real working world, classes in soft skills should be mandatory. But as a first step, the case for soft skills must at least be put on the table for debate. Right now, it’s not even part of the conversation. We test for proficiency in English, math, history, and science, but we do not test a student’s ability to compete in a job interview. Forget the test; where in the curriculum are we even teaching our students how to compete in a job interview? How are we ensuring students have the many soft skills today’s employers value?
In short: we’re just not.
Kyle Scott is a coordinator with Education Nation.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.