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Science, technology, engineering, and math are not the only (or perhaps even the most) valuable 21st century skills. Even Google says so.
In the last decade, American education has been increasingly concerned with promoting STEM subjects. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of students enrolled in STEM degree programs increased 36%. Then-President Obama asked Congress for a $4 billion investment in computer science in K-12 schools. States like Michigan now allow high school students to fulfill foreign language credit requirements by learning to code. Government officials in North Carolina and Kentucky have proposed defunding non-technical majors in state universities, on the basis that they “don’t get someone a job”.
But Google, of all sources, just revealed the importance of other, softer skills for emerging leaders and managers.
The Washington Post recently reported on a 2013 Google study of its hiring, firing, and promotion data since 1998. The study, called Project Oxygen, sought to identify key skills and behaviors in the company’s managers. Surprisingly, the data revealed that among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top leaders and managers, STEM expertise comes in last.
So, what came out on top? “The seven top characteristics of [managerial] success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.” Strong technical skills are a must, particularly for engineers, designers, and so on. But as employees look beyond individual contributions and into management roles, people skills are paramount.
The majority of these soft skills are byproducts of the hard skill that continues to be put on the back burner or brushed aside entirely: learning a foreign language.
Of course, the benefits and advantages afforded by foreign language study are not limited to employable skills. Parents, educators, and employers have many reasons to emphasize languages with the same intensity as STEM:
As a tech company, we do not deny the necessity of STEM skills in the modern workplace. In fact, we think STEM and languages are complementary skills. But offering scholarships or distributing state education funds based on which degrees earn money or guarantee employment only narrows our tunnel vision. CNN host Fareed Zakaria agrees, arguing:
“This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future. The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy.”
Particularly at younger ages—at least through high school—an introduction to the full spectrum of technical and social sciences develops the soft skills that can be harder to learn later on. Languages in particular are best started as early as possible to develop the skills and qualities so highly desired by Google.
Lest you think the title of this post is using Google’s name as nothing more than a buzzword, it’s not just the internet behemoth who feels this way. According to NACE’s Job Outlook 2016 survey and the 260 employers it surveyed, important hirable attributes include “written communication skills, problem-solving skills, verbal communication skills, and a strong work ethic”. In fact, “respondents to the current survey gave slightly greater weight to verbal communication skills than was the case last year, and slightly less weight to analytical/quantitative skills.”
The increased value placed on STEM degrees, unfortunately, has resulted in a decrease in value for other majors. While they value attributes associated with the social sciences and humanities, survey respondents also indicated that academic major has the most significant influence on hiring decisions. Foreign language abilities and study abroad experiences, on the other hand, wield “not much influence”.
This inconsistency is massively important for educators, law makers, parents, and employers to realize. It’s time for employers to see the value of degrees in languages, philosophy, history, the arts, and beyond. Some have already noticed; billionaire investor Mark Cuban predicts “a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than […] for programming majors and maybe even engineering”.
Emphasizing foreign languages and other social sciences is still relevant – critical, even – in the 21st century. As the Washington Post points out, even Steve Jobs infamously insisted STEM wouldn’t be enough. The future will require experts in “the human, cultural, and social as well as the computational.”