Wanted: Soft skills for today’s jobs


Infusing important soft skills in traditional academic courses can improve employability among black youth.


High schools are supposed to educate students for both college and careers, but that often seems no more than a slogan. There’s a far bigger push to get students into college.

A college education can increase a young person’s fund of knowledge, intellectual skills, and prospects for a better paying job. But many students don’t obtain a college degree. A nationwide analysis of data on black and Hispanic youth found that only 30% enroll in college within two years of high school graduation, and only 20% earn an associate’s degree or higher by the time they’ve reached their mid-20s (Symonds, Schwartz, & Ferguson, 2011).

When black students in an academic track graduate from high school but don’t obtain a college degree, their employment prospects are bleak. A recent report found that, nationwide, there was a 34% gap in employment between black and white youth ages 20-24 who were out of work (Cordova & Wilson, 2016). In Chicago, the percentage of black youth who were out of work and out of school was 41% among 20- to 24-year-olds.

In high school, most efforts at job preparation occur in career-technical courses. There have been recent attempts at integrating career-technical and academic learning, such as career academies. Although these are promising in terms of a range of outcomes (Kemple, 2008), they retain a focus on trade skills. Students in academic tracks receive little or no job preparation. In part, this reflects the enormous cultural gap between academic and career-technical tracks. Those who teach traditional academic courses often don’t see a fit with trade skills.

Job skills and school

Given the staggering level of unemployment among black youth, we must rethink what schools can do to better prepare students for jobs. Fortunately, two recent research developments suggest a way of stepping outside the box and reframing how high schools can enhance learning about both academics and jobs. These developments suggest that students learn important job skills in the everyday experience of core academic subjects — a fact that can greatly enhance employability among low-income black students.

First has been the increased attention to the importance in the workplace of what have been variously termed soft skills, 21st-century skills, or noncognitive skills (Hirsch, 2015; Murnane & Levy, 1996; Pellegrino & Hilton, 2012). These generic skills — such as teamwork, communication, leadership, problem solving, initiative, and self-regulation — are useful in a wide variety of jobs.

The strongest predictors of hiring for both apprenticeship and nonapprenticeship students were ratings of student maturity and communication skills.

The second development is a methodological one. Until recently, there was no rigorous way to assess job skills among high school students. This shortcoming made it difficult to track student learning, refine instruction, and determine program effectiveness. To fill this gap, my research group collaborated with senior human resources (HR) professionals to develop a mock job interview for high school students. This new assessment generated important findings about soft skills and how traditional academic courses can integrate the development and use of these skills. It also increases the program and policy options available to schools in low-income communities, as will be presented in the concluding section of this article.

The mock job interview

Job interviews play a crucial role in hiring decisions; they’re thought to provide a good basis for judging applicant skills and suitability for jobs (Levashina et al., 2014; Rosenbaum, 2001). In a school context, mock job interviews can give students the training and practice they need to excel in authentic interviews.

We designed the Northwestern Mock Job Interview for high school students. We first used the 20-minute interview to evaluate marketable job skills in a randomized controlled study of a large, urban after-school program for high school students that featured apprenticeship training (Hirsch, 2015). The evaluation sample of 535 students in 10 schools was 77% black and 23% Hispanic. The mock interview was subsequently used with a similar preponderance of minority students as part of a brief, school-based curriculum to improve student job interview performance.

Developed in collaboration with HR professionals, the Northwestern Mock Job Interview reflected actual business practices. The 13 interview questions were designed to tap students’ skills and thinking processes in a variety of domains. HR professionals conducted the interviews to enhance the credibility of findings. Ratings of 1, 3, and 5 on a 5-point scale were defined for each question; interrater reliability was ensured by training all interviewers and assessing their agreement with consensus ratings on videotaped interviews.

Items were grouped into two subscales. One subscale consisted of ratings made on the 13 interview questions. The other subscale consisted of interviewer ratings of 11 overall characteristics of the interviewee, such as initial impression, eye contact, communication skills, and maturity. Each subscale predicted, with statistical significance, whether the interviewer rated the student as hirable for a summer as well as for a permanent job.

What counts in getting hired

Data from our randomized evaluation of after-school apprenticeship training for high school students revealed that students’ soft skills were crucial to HR judgments of their hirability for entry-level jobs (Hirsch, 2015). The strongest predictors of hiring for both apprenticeship and nonapprenticeship students were ratings of student maturity and communication skills. In qualitative analyses, teamwork and communication skills were the most important differences among apprenticeships that had the best as opposed to the worst mock job hiring rates. Of the 535 students who completed the mock interview, 52% were considered hirable.

Students, families, and teachers are often puzzled as to what counts as relevant experience when teenagers apply for jobs. The HR professionals made it clear that job-relevant skills learned in school very much counted; the interviewers seemed predisposed to consider them for this age group, given that many young people would not have had paid jobs.

In debriefing sessions I held with the HR professionals after each day’s interviews, they consistently referenced soft skills that were learned as part of the everyday practices in students’ academic classes. One of the most noteworthy examples concerned a student whom the interviewer thought had the makings of a good project manager:

She was a potential project manager. You can just tell she’s somebody who knows how to break down tasks . . . in a literature project they worked on . . . she was able to recognize [the members] of the team who had special skill sets, who knew how to do PowerPoint, who knew how to write well, who knew how to present well, and she broke down the tasks for everybody. And then when they all had to regroup, she facilitated. You know, asked them questions on how did you prepare this? So that she would draw from the team what they learned from each of the tasks they had performed, so collectively they all knew what they were doing. I just thought it was a pretty decent response. It was [being] a good project manager and leader-facilitator (Hirsch, 2015, p. 83).

We typically don’t think of high school students as project managers, a job classification that is well beyond entry level and that pays well beyond an entry-level salary. But this student was seen to have performed — and performed well — as a project manager in school. Moreover, the student did this in a literature class, which is generally considered far removed from career-technical training. All the teacher had to do in this class was to teach it as it was normally taught for it to have job benefits. No changes were required. Any class that involves teamwork could provide such opportunities.

There were multiple other examples of job-related skills that fit many high school academic classes. One interviewer spoke of how students who provide information on a poster board for a class presentation might use a similar skill to set up a merchandise display in a retail store. Another noted how a disengaged and angry student was reconnected to a class project by a student who took the time to talk to him about his troubles.

The challenges students face

Even though students gained valuable experiences and skills in classes, they often did not present these skills successfully in the mock job interviews. When queried about various skills they exhibited in their classwork, students frequently said, “that’s just school”; they didn’t believe that school-based experiences would count in the workplace. The HR professionals believed, on the contrary, that nonemployment experiences did count but that students needed to be educated to develop that understanding.

Even if students believed that their school experiences were relevant, many of them didn’t know how to communicate that information successfully in the mock job interview. The HR professionals repeatedly told us that students needed to “prove” they had relevant experiences by describing when they had used their skills in the past. The examples had to provide the context in which they had used the skill, the task they needed to perform, the action they had taken, and the result of their activity.

By providing this level of detail, students enabled interviewers to assess their skillfulness in the behavior. It also enabled them to understand how the student thought and how well the student might be able to learn on the job, an essential attribute for the modern workplace. Even if the actions that students reported in the interview did not result in a successful ending, the interviewer wanted to understand what the student had learned from the experience and how he or she might use that understanding to do better in the future. HR professionals were similar to teachers in their desire to understand how students learn. They wanted to hire youth whose prior experiences suggested that they were likely to want to learn on the job.

Sample questions from the mock job interview

  • Can you tell me about a recent goal and what you did to achieve it?
  • This job will involve working together with several other people. Can you tell me about a time you worked with other people in a group or team, and what you did to help the group?
  • What made you decide to apply for this job with us?

What high schools can do

Schools can take several steps to improve their ability to help low-income, black students learn job skills and job interview skills.

Start with the teachers.

Teachers may not realize that they’re teaching a variety of valuable soft skills in their classes. Professional development sessions may help teachers recognize work skills and teach their students to recognize them as well. The local branch of the Society for Human Resource Management, the main professional association for HR workers, is a good resource.

Offer a guided curriculum.

Students need additional education on how to do well in interviews. In our work with 11th graders in career and technical education, five to six class periods of exposure to a guided curriculum resulted in a doubling of the hiring rate in the mock job interview (Hirsch, 2015). The curriculum emphasized communication skills that would allow students to demonstrate to the interviewer that they had relevant skills. It also addressed nonverbal skills that would allow them to develop a good rapport with the interviewer.

Highlight soft skills in academic classes.

To provide these types of learning experiences to students in academic tracks, principals could make use of a combination of assembly sessions, web-based learning modules, and selected exposure to material in traditional academic classes. Not every teacher would want — or need — to be involved. But some would probably be eager to help students learn soft skills that could help them get jobs.

The learning could be infused into classes. For example, after a module of academic work is completed, the teacher could have students practice presenting the skills they’ve learned as though they were in a job interview. Alternatively, teachers could do those exercises during the weeks at the end of the school year, which tend to be more flexible in terms of scheduling content.

Work with internship sites.

Another strategy is to develop ties with potential internship sites. Schools could propose to firms that they accept only those students who are deemed hirable in a job interview for the internship. We know from our mock job interview research that a good number of students are already considered hirable for entry-level jobs; the number who are hirable is likely to increase if schools help students recognize their job-related soft skills and learn how to communicate them effectively in an interview.

Use mock interviews to certify job readiness.

On a broader policy level, school administrators should advocate for using mock job interviews as a certification of job readiness. A hiring decision in a mock job interview is a hard outcome: It represents a meaningful and measurable societal outcome. It testifies that the student has acquired sufficient knowledge and skills to enter the workforce. Just as graduation from high school signifies a level of mastery of course content and indicates that the student has passed relevant examinations, being rated as hirable by a professional interviewer demonstrates exam-level mastery of job readiness skills.

If we take seriously the charge to educate young people for both college and the work world, and if we recognize the crucial importance of preparing black high school students for eventual employment, then testing for job certification becomes a needed benchmark and a strong argument for a new vision of high school education.


Cordova, T. & Wilson, M. (2016). Lost: The crisis of jobless and out of school teens in Chicago, Illinois and the U.S. Chicago: University of Illinois at Chicago, Great Cities Institute.

Hirsch, B.J. (2015). Job skills and minority youth: New program directions. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Kemple, J. (2008). Career academies: Long-term impacts on labor market outcomes, educational attainment, and transition to adulthood. New York, NY: MDRC.

Levashina, J., Hartwell, C., Morgeson, F., & Campion, M. (2014). The structured employment interview: Narrative and quantitative review of the research literature. Personnel Psychology, 67 (1), 241-293.

Murnane, R. & Levy, F. (1996). Teaching the new basic skills: Principles for educating children to thrive in a changing economy. New York, NY: Free Press.

Pelligrino, J. & Hilton, M. (Eds.) (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Rosenbaum, J. (2001). Beyond college for all: Career paths for the forgotten half. New York, NY: Russell Sage.

Symonds, W., Schwartz, R., & Ferguson, R. (2011). Pathways to prosperity: Meeting the challenge of preparing young Americans for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Graduate School of Education.


R&D appears in each issue of Kappan with the assistance of the Deans Alliance, which is composed of the deans of the education schools/colleges at the following universities: George Washington University, Harvard University, Michigan State University, Northwestern University, Stanford University, Teachers College Columbia University, University of California, Berkeley, University of California, Los Angeles, University of Colorado, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Wisconsin.

Originally published in February 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 98 (5), 12-17.

© 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.


BARTON J. HIRSCH (bhirsch@northwestern.edu) is a professor of human development and social policy in the School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.

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