Learning workshop puts human skills on the workforce agenda

Participants break into groups at the “Human skills: From Conversations to Convergence” workshop held at MIT Samberg Conference Center Wednesday. Photo by Anna Stjernquist / BU News Service

By Anna Stjernquist
BU News Service

BOSTON — “In formal education and other realms of life, the evidence we collect is not always closely aligned with the skills that we really value,” said Louisa Rosenheck, associate director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Playful Journey Lab, at an interactive workshop focused on human skills Wednesday.

“Human Skills: From Conversations to Convergence,” organized by the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL), invited prominent thought leaders from academia, public policy, industry and edtech for a collaborative workshop at the MIT Samberg Conference Center to discuss what is increasingly sought after in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields: human skills.

While technical skill sets remain crucial in an increasingly data-driven work environment, both panelists and organizers concluded that human skills, including competencies like self-awareness, adaptability and teamwork, are key to staying competitive across all sectors and industries.

The full-day program included speakers and collaborative sessions in which participants were asked to define, assess and eventually pitch proposed solutions on how to standardize human skills in front of an expert jury from the J-WEL Workforce Learning initiative.

Mariam Kakkar, chief of talent development at United Nations Development Programme, said agile, high performers tend to have an infinite mindset and are continuous learners. 

“The ones who are looking at how they are going to be in 20, 30 years and are trying to reinvent themselves, those are the ones who are sticking out because they and their teams are performing better,” Kakkar said.

Panelists agreed that these trends are not unique to the STEM profession. They are observed in all industries that are changing as a result of digital transformation and are facing new demands of adaptable and agile employees.

In education, Wes Sonnenreich, CEO and co-founder of Practera, said feedback is a cornerstone in improving skills through what he referred to as “reflective learning,” emphasizing that employers may need support in providing feedback to employees.

“Employers will say that these new hires don’t have the skills, but they can often mistake a lack of motivation for a lack of skill,” he said.

Sonnenreich argued employers need to motivate employees with good leadership. 

“There’s an entire leadership cadre that grew up in the jobs so a lot of them don’t actually have the training themselves in these skills, so they don’t know what they are looking for or how to identify it,” Sonnenreich said.

The topics discussed touched upon issues that are key in education initiatives that have or are trying to adapt to how technology is shaping the future of work and desirable skill sets.

Susan Young, assistant director at J-WEL Workforce Learning and coordinator of the workshop, said part of their work aims to make sure education stays relevant over time. 

“You get a badge, you get a certificate, but then how do your skills actually age over time, or not?” Young asked. “So it’s life-long learning that we’re going to see more of. It’s people reskilling multiple times over the course of their career. Sometimes in the workplace but other times outside of the workplace.” 

Although J-WEL Workforce Learning has done workshops on human skills, Young said this is the first workshop to open up for discussion and share their research findings with the public. 

“This is the first convention where we’ve brought people to think about human skills,” Young said. “It’s really meant to be panel discussions and breakout sessions where people actually move the needle, start bringing new ideas to the table and hopefully make connections that persist beyond today.”

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