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Teaching Soft Skills for the Future of Work

May 11, 2022

By Socheata Sann

The rapid pace of technological change has turned the task of preparing for a career into a puzzle. The jobs that young people train for today may be gone by the time they enter the workforce. The jobs of tomorrow don’t yet exist. This is acutely true in Cambodia, as it rapidly transforms from an agrarian society to an urban nation with a booming population of young people hungry for a place in the new economy.

Much of the education literature now predicts that the twenty-first century’s most sought-after skills for young workers will be so-called “soft” skills—core competencies such as collaboration, communication, and critical thinking that allow employees to become creative problem-solvers who can grow as the nature of work changes. Employers, too, are now recognizing the importance of soft skills in the twenty-first-century workplace. They believe they can train their employees in the “hard” technical skills as long as employees have the ability to work well with others, solve new problems, think long term, and apply their own creativity to finding solutions.

In 2020, The Asia Foundation, with financial support from the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia, launched Learning and Leading, a program to improve the soft skills of high school and university students and help them find pathways to careers or higher education. In April 2021, due to Covid-19, the project team pivoted to a blended learning approach—a combination of discussion groups, practical exercises, and online, independent learning over a period of four months.

A team of students working together in the Learning and Leading program. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

The program, which is open to students in Phnom Penh and several provinces, has now completed three sessions and trained 193 students. Each session includes five soft-skills modules, covering communications skills, leadership and decision-making, critical thinking and problem-solving, teamwork and conflict management, and time management. It also includes two modules focused on higher education and careers: “Higher Education Pathways” and “Career Pathways.” Finally, an “Action Project” module asks students to apply the soft skills they’ve learned to a team project.

Soft skills are less respected, but they are used for every aspect of our lives. I got a chance to practice my soft skills through the program, which taught me priceless lessons that I never learned in school.
 
—Sothiny Phuong, a university student in Phnom Penh

Even though we didn’t think we were leaders, we all led in different ways during our action project.
 
—A student from the provinces

In the “Higher Education Pathways” module, students are encouraged to get involved in extra-curricular activities, such as volunteer work or internships, that can help them clarify their own goals for higher education or a career. In the “Career Pathways” module, the students learn about different career clusters and the soft skills and technical skills that are needed in each.

Benjamin Wohlauer, deputy chief of mission of the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia, addresses the second session of the Learning and Leading program. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

Some of the modules have become student favorites, including the teamwork and conflict-resolution module; the problem-solving and critical thinking module, which helped them find different ways to address team issues and imagine how they could work with groups in their own communities; and the time management module, which taught them how to set SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) and organize tasks using “backward planning,” reasoning backward from an intended goal to determine the steps necessary to complete the task on time.

Soft skills are a precious ingredient of self-understanding, while taking the lead is an important element for transforming your skills and knowledge into action. I got to experience this self-milestone by participating in the Learning and Leading program.
 
—Jakkrya Sey, a university student in Phnom Penh.

A team of students in the Learning and Leading program present their action project: a campaign to promote Cambodia’s endangered traditional dance form Lkhon Khol. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

The action projects gave the students, working in teams, the chance to put their soft skills to use, working together, solving problems, and meeting deadlines. The students divided into groups and worked together to devise their projects. A total of 27 action projects were completed over the three sessions. Examples included:

  1. A campaign to promote Lkhon Khol, Cambodia’s traditional form of masked dance that was nearly wiped out by the Khmer Rouge.
  2. A recycling campaign to encourage separating organic and inorganic waste.
  3. A “virtual camp” for young people.
  4. A campaign warning of the deleterious effects of excessive social media use.
  5. A fundraising and book-donation campaign for needy primary-school children.
  6. A presentation to introduce young people to STEM.

Equipping myself with soft skills from the Learning and Leading program helped me to work better in a team and to form mutual connections with different people. I have also learned to initiate a fruitful action project, with all the technicalities that are involved, something I otherwise wouldn’t have known about.
 
—Amra Chet, a university student in Phnom Penh

Students in the third session of the Learning and Leading program, December 2021. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

Each session culminates with presentations from the action project teams, highlighting their key results, relevant baseline and post-assessment data, and feedback from their audience. The third session will hold its closing ceremony on May 21. All of the teams used social media to reach the public, although they were also able to organize some small-group, in-person activities. (This flexible problem-solving speaks, in part, to the effectiveness of the program.) The teams also showed their potential to contribute to their communities in creative new ways. One session’s Facebook posts achieved a “reach” of 203,000 people in the two months from November through December 2021. The 27 action projects over the course of the three sessions connected with 1,100 individuals in eight provinces and Phnom Penh.

It is truly encouraging to see this generation getting ready for their future. Many may have careers that have not yet been invented, but they will all use their soft skills in any career they choose.
 
—Alana Copple, a program curriculum developer and trainer

Socheata Sann is a program director for The Asia Foundation in Cambodia. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Cambodia
Related programs: Women's Empowerment and Gender Equality

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