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Don’t Forget the “Soft Skills”: What Does it Mean to be Career-Ready?

One of my former MBA students did not like my lecture on the value of being emphatic and showing gratitude. He came to see me after class and said that the lecture was a waste of time and filled with "wo-wo." I laughed at the "wo-wo" comment and asked why he felt this way. "Leaders don't need to be empathetic," he said. "Leaders need to be strong and should just tell it like it is, regardless of how people feel about the message." He went on to say that "it's not important to be liked by your employees." He did not believe that empathy, gratitude, or any other soft skills were essential for being an effective leader.

After recovering from the shock of his statements, I asked if he cared about being liked by the other students on his team project, which accounted for 15% of his grade. He said "Nope!" His response ran counter to all my experience as a consultant and my understanding of research findings. I then asked if he wanted to get a good job after graduation. He looked at me as if I was from outer space and said, "OF COURSE!" He believed that getting a job was the number one priority for all students but that his goal-driven approach is what would give him a competitive advantage over other job applicants. I was perplexed. This student's idea that "soft skills" were not necessary for landing a successful job after college ran counterintuitive to my experiences. So it naturally begged the question: What are employers looking for when hiring college graduates?

Surveys of employers from around the globe reveal that college graduates do not have the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and other characteristics they desire. These "skills gaps" typically come from two sources: skills shortages (i.e., there are not enough graduates in a particular field) or skills mismatches (i.e., graduates do not posses the desired skills). According to the Wall Street Journal article, Employers Find ‘Soft Skills' Like Critical Thinking in Short Supplyi, "a skills gap has left more than 6 million jobs unfilled in fields like information technology, manufacturing, and health care" in 2018.

While this gap is important to recognize, most instructors, like me, will think the same thing, "there's nothing I can do about that." And in some cases we're correct. I can't as a business professor address the skills shortage gap in the U.S. But there are steps, both big and small, that myself and all faculty members can do to help students develop their soft skills and become more career-ready.

What Does It Mean to be Career Ready?

Career readiness reflects the extent to which a person possesses the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and attributes desired by employers. A 2016 survey ii of 201 members from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) showed that the top five skills sought by employers were leadership, ability to work in a team, written communication skills, problem-solving skills, and verbal communication. Another study of 400 U.S. employers, Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success iii demonstrated the following six competencies were rated as very important by 80% of the respondents:

  • Quality oral communication.
  • Effectively working with others in teams.
  • Quality written communication.
  • Acting ethical and making good judgments.
  • Critical thinking and reasoning skills.
  • Applying knowledge and skills to solve problems.

These two studies demonstrate that employers are looking for graduates with soft skills. Improving these skills takes a two-pronged approach. Professors need to consider how to incorporate soft-skill development into their classes and students need to take an active role in focusing on the development of their career readiness.

How Can Professors Help?

The first step entails identifying the competencies that define career readiness. You can find them in the sources noted above.

Next, we need to consider how to redesign our classes to incorporate the development of these competencies. I tend to focus on critical thinking and problem solving because these skills generally rise to the top of the "preferred" list, and they are easy to operationalize in most classes. I do it by using discussion-based teaching, focusing on the application of case discussions and incorporating a combination of written and video cases. There are many good books to consult about the process of discussion-based learning. I particularly like the one by C. Roland Christensen and his colleagues titled Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership.

How Can Students Develop Their Career Readiness Independently?

My co-author and I discuss six generic ways students can develop their career readiness in the 9th edition of our textbook, titled Management: A Practical Introduction. We encourage students to engage in the following activities:

  • Build self-awareness.
  • Learn from educational activities.
  • Model others possessing the desired competencies.
  • Learn from on-the-job activities.
  • Seek experience from student groups and organizations.
  • Experiment with using soft skills in different situations.

Encouraging students to practice career readiness on their own is critical and many colleges offer services and career centers to help guide students in these types of activities. Online professional webinars for students, like the recent 2017 McGraw-Hill Career Building Workshop series, may also be a good resource to help students practice and expand their career readiness acumen.

So what did happened to my MBA student who did not appreciate the value of those so-called soft skills? Ultimately, he did not obtain the grade he desired in the class. More importantly, he ended up being disliked by his colleagues and faced difficulty landing a job after graduation. A warning for many students for the future -- don't underestimate the importance of working on those "soft skills" and developing your career readiness!


i K. Davidson, "Employers Find ‘Soft Skills' Like Critical Thinking in Short Supply," The Wall Street Journal, August 30, 2016,

ii "Job outlook 2016: Attributes employers want to see on new college graduates' resumes," 2016. Job Outlook 2016: National Association of Colleges and Employers,

iii "Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success," Hart Research Associates, 2015.

About the Author

Angelo Kinicki is an emeritus professor of management and held the Weatherup/Overby Chair in Leadership from 2005 to 2015 at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. Angelo is the recipient of six teaching awards from Arizona State University, where he taught in its nationally ranked MBA and PhD programs. He also received several research awards and was selected to serve on the editorial review boards for four scholarly journals. His current research interests focus on the dynamic relationships among leadership; organizational culture; organizational change; and individual, group, and organizational performance. He is also the author of the McGraw-Hill Education text, Management, 8e and the co-author of Organizational Behavior: A Practical, Problem-Solving Approach, 2e

Profile Photo of Angelo Kinicki