Is Teamwork the Most Important Soft Skill?

We recently facilitated a workshop with industry recruiters and college program directors to learn from each other how to more successfully place graduates into in-demand jobs. There was much discussion about what recruiters were looking for in their new hires, and much discussion among the college representatives about what seemed to be working to prepare their students.

But something stood out to us as one college representative spoke about what makes college students in 2019 different from those in the past.

“Many students today resist working in groups,” she said. “That seems to be different from a time in which group projects were accepted as part of college.”

Most traditional students today are part of Generation Z – those born between 1995 and 2010. The oldest are in college now, or just entering the workforce. And they often have two characteristics that are telling: They are typically more self-confident than other generations, and they are typically more independent.

Both traits can be valuable at work. Employers want employees who take initiative, are self-starters and exhibit an entrepreneurial spirit. Where confidence and independence can cause problems is when they get in the way of teamwork, which is essential to any organization that asks employees to work toward common goals. In fact, LinkedIn recently identified both the hard and soft skills employers are looking for by tracking the skills listed on the LinkedIn profiles of people who are getting hired at the highest rates. Of the five soft skills most in demand, collaboration ranked third.

Are we overlooking soft skills when preparing young people for the workforce? Many employers seem to think so. They complain regularly that soft skills like teamwork are in short supply, even when candidates have strong technical skills.

Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, also must have thought so when it began focusing on soft skills five years ago. Since then, it has worked with employers on identifying and teaching the soft skills needed to succeed in the workplace. On the list: Leadership and Teamwork.

Members of Generation Z are not alone in resisting group projects for a grade. Who wants to share an A with a slacker? At the same time, those are the projects that force us to work with people of diverse talents, thinking and abilities – just as we must do in the workplace. In fact, teamwork skills can often serve us better in life than hard skills we acquired but never used.

Teamwork and collaboration are learned, and they take practice. Learning teamwork is harder today in our remote work environments and online college classrooms. But giving in to student resistance is not the answer. It’s up to educators to find a way to make group work possible, and it’s up to employers to put young employees into situations that help them grow their collaboration skills.

Members of Generation Z may not like it. But their employability – and our nation’s workforce effectiveness – depend on it.