Your early childhood skills will become more important to landing a job than your degree, says a Harvard future of work professor


If you haven’t gone to therapy yet, here’s your sign: Addressing your childhood trauma could be critical for your career.

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Skills-based hiring is on its way to becoming more valuable than a degree—and that’s coming from the very top. College degrees are losing their prominence in the hiring process, and with the rapid adoption of generative A.I. like ChatGPT, non-degree holders can expect plenty more tailwinds to come, says Joseph Fuller, a professor of management at Harvard Business School who co-leads the school’s Managing the Future of Work initiative.

“Do I think white collar work will inevitably require a college degree? Absolutely not,” Fuller tells Fortune in a recent interview. “It will require certain types of technical or hard skills not necessarily indicated by college.”

Plus, many jobs will continue requiring social skills “in significant measure,” Fuller went on—that could look like charming clients, listening actively in meetings, and maintaining strong relationships. According to a 2015 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, nearly all job growth since 1980 has been seen in jobs that are “relatively social-skill intensive.” On the other hand, easily automatable jobs—those calling for ample analytical and mathematical reasoning and minimal social interaction—have fared poorly.

Eight years on, that’s proven to be prescient, and the trend towards skills is only gaining steam. Executives from IBM, LinkedIn, Penguin Random House, Apple, and Google have all heralded skills-based hiring as a welcome virtue—especially in a tight labor market where finding talent in new areas is critical. As of November 2022, just 41% of U.S.-based job postings required at least a bachelor’s degree—a drop from 46% in early 2019, according to an analysis from think tank Burning Glass Institute reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Plus, as machines like A.I. eliminate routine tasks, Fuller said, what gets left behind are the human skills we deem soft. But Fuller doesn’t like the term “soft skills” because “it suggests anyone can do it, but they’re actually harder to develop sophisticatedly.”

Being a social butterfly is better than being a math whiz (most of the time)

Research from the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Future of Jobs report bears out Fuller’s sentiment; four of the top five skills employers are going to demand in the next five years are creative thinking, analytical thinking, curiosity and lifelong learning, and resilience/flexibility/agility. (Not to be overlooked, the other one in the top five is technological literacy—no one can escape A.I. quite yet).

Fuller’s research on skills-based hiring has found that when companies eliminated degree requirements, they ended up putting more language about social skills in their job listings. In appealing to applicants, they’d tend towards phrases like “ability to manage,” “ability to deal with strangers,” “make presentations,” and “carry out executive functions.” Those are all qualities companies attribute to college graduates, but they aren’t actually exclusive to that group.

Of note, none of those skills require a four-year degree to attain. They each come innately—and that’s Fuller’s point. About a quarter of college graduates don’t work in jobs that expressly require a degree in the first place, he says. He attributes that to the growth in non-STEM majors. It’s created a paradox: “There’s demand for educated people, but also demand for spending a quarter million on a curriculum that doesn’t really give you a lot of clear [soft] skills.”

Unfortunately, the fewer skills a worker has, the less negotiating leverage they have where it matters on issues like salary, benefits, and hybrid work arrangements, Fuller says.

Time to call your therapist

Those who didn’t suffer from trauma or abuse during infancy and childhood are the likeliest to develop higher level social skills at an early age, Fuller says. Unfortunately, trauma is very common; 70% of U.S. adults have gone through it, and people who experienced early abuse or neglect are more likely to be socially isolated, suffer from depression and anxiety, and struggle to regulate their emotions. Adding insult to injury, Fuller points out, higher rates of trauma are inversely correlated with household net worth. If left unresolved, traumatic responses developed in childhood can impact all kinds of social relationships—including work ones—and can potentially stifle professional growth.

That doesn’t mean all hope is lost for those with trauma—or for those whose tech skills exceed their social skills for any reason. Anyone can learn soft skills, regardless of their background, with thoughtful reflection and openness to feedback, Heidi Abelli, senior vice president of product and development at edtech company Skillsoft, told Fortune. Introspection is crucial, Abelli said, as is making a conscious effort to assess your weaknesses.

Improving one’s soft skills is like learning chess. Jeremy Auger, chief strategy officer of training company D2L, told Fortune. “But the only way you really learn the game is by playing over and over again, preferably against someone who’s better at it than you are.”

To show just how vital that well-adjusted early childhood—or resolving that trauma later in life—is, Fuller points to a common current conundrum: Many people with “great” digital and social skills have had the latitude, especially since the pandemic, to reconsider the role of work in their lives. People who, when their employers disappoint them, say they could sustain their lifestyle somewhere else, likely possess in-demand skills, or are part of a double-income household. Those are the ones, Fuller said, who have the freedom to care most about a company’s morals.

“There isn’t a uniform answer here,” he said. “But the higher the skill level and aptitude, the more the worker is in the driver seat. Lower down, less so.”

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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