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At risk of sound bite approach: it's still good to talk

The latest skills survey has revealed that employers' biggest complaint is that young people lack social skills. They can't communicate, solve problems or work in teams - depressing findings, especially if communication is on your teaching timetable.

In our college, all full-time courses have a communication unit and core soft skills are built into many Higher Still units. Yet, as employers point out, qualifications are often a poor indicator of skills, especially soft skills. If youngsters going into employment are deemed to lack basic communication skills, then perhaps we're assessing and awarding competence for the wrong things. The world of work is changing. Creating assessments for a new service economy, assessments which will test soft skills, is problematic. The need to provide evidence of competence can often skew how soft skills are taught and how they are assessed. We need a more flexible approach.

Capturing soft skills within learners' own training areas is an attractive option and one which we pursue vigorously. We have completed successful pilot schemes in areas such as hairdressing and tourism - industries where a high standard of communication is vital.

This week in our training restaurant, I saw our young table staff learning not just how to serve food competently, but how to talk to their customers, a skill that is going to be vital to them in the industry.

This kind of learning is the most valid in the eyes of our young people who have come to college to gain vocational qualifications and not to reflect on communication skills. Yet a competence-based approach to teaching and learning results inevitably in a high emphasis on assessment and awarding of achievement. The problem can be that not enough time is left for the teaching of social skills and they are squeezed out. A taste of the real world of work is invaluable.

This week, my pre-nursing communication learners are going out to nursing homes and hospitals to gain experience of the jobs they'll be going into.

They'll be seeing how theory turns into practice, and they'll be testing their soft skills, too. We'll build on these experiences when they return.

Jimmy, from the media class, is working with a local radio station and learning not just how to work under pressure, but how to get along in a team. What he's learning is feeding into his class work.

Most of our learners need to juggle part-time work with their studies and, though the work is not always what they would choose, they seem to learn a great deal about human nature and working with others. Sometimes the experience can be bittersweet. Peter's job involves stints as a greeter in the shop where he works during the festive season. He smiles and welcomes people to the store "and they stare at me as if I'm mad," he said. "Nobody smiles back."

Maybe I'm biased, but the young people I see like Peter are working pretty hard to train for jobs - both in terms of technical skills and social skills, and I find the blanket condemnation of social skills in our young people troubling. Certainly, in the light of these reports, colleges must try harder. But these are youngsters. They are still developing and maturing, and their social skills will continue to develop, too.

It takes time and lots of encouragement - from colleges, employers and the public. So if you do see Peter while you're Christmas shopping - please smile back.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in media at Dundee College.

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