What skills does industry need us to educate for?

Updated: Aug 13

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We regularly hear about “soft skills” including critical thinking as important for industry-readiness. Yet alarm bells are ringing at home and internationally on how well graduates are doing in both regards. This article questions whether there is a deficit in critical thinking skills and if indeed this matters relative to soft skills. We also consider the dual role of education and industry in preparing graduates the future VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous).

Is there a crisis in Critical Thinking?

Earlier this year, the Irish Times cited an Accenture report stating, “only 13 of employers believe graduates are very well equipped to meet the needs of the future workforce”. Similarly, an Economist article from a few years ago found (with the benefit of a large dataset) only 3-7% of Indian STEM graduates as employable for machine learning, digital science and/or engineering. Yet curiously, global scores mark a steady and significant increase in abstract thinking capacity, generation on generation. Clearly, this is anomalous with the above reports. It also causes me to ask if the deficit is less in graduate ability than the criterion being applied for thinking. Can we be more specific about which critical and thinking skills we need?

What is Critical Thinking?

To think critically, we engage in cognitive processes such as interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, and explanation. These are and will always be essential skills for industry. However, as cognitive functions they are also partly reflexive i.e. subject to underlying assumptions and beliefs. Learning, likewise, has an attitudinal component and employers acknowledge this. Indeed, those surveyed by Accenture highlighted “work ethic” as desirable. When this is combined with critical thinking, we might reasonably deduce that graduates need to, first and foremost, willing to learn. Perhaps not just graduates but also employers need  “intellectual integrity” i.e. to hold themselves to the same rigorous standards of thinking to which they hold others.

Can we educate for Critical Thinking & Intellectual Integrity?

This short answer is “Yes” but this is not a straightforward exercise. I have spent years running workshops for validation engineers on critical thinking. My experience is that it is possible to build awareness of both its importance and demonstrate key criterion. For example, this includes differentiating between “precision and accuracy” and between “relevance and significance”. However, research suggests that increased awareness makes us not more but actually less confident in our ability to think critically. Yet, experts also emphasise a capacity to critique our own intellectual standards as core to becoming strong critical thinkers. The challenge is to educate graduates on intellectual standards without them losing the confidence necessary for “metacognition”.

The learning environment plays a key role in this respect. There are education approaches that increase awareness of critical thinking yet build mental habits for self-efficacy. Problem-based Learning (PBL), for example, creates a safe environment in which engineers and scientists can deliberately practice analytical thinking and broaden their conceptual skills. It allows them to picture “what could be” and understand “know-why” as well as “know-how and -what”. Validation as both purpose-driven and interdisciplinary presents a good opportunity to hone these skills but any discipline can potentially benefit from a PBL approach.

Integrating learning environments

The employers surveyed by Accenture also highlighted a desire for emotional intelligence in graduates. In doing so, they may or may not appreciate its importance for critical thinking. In fact, there is a well-established link between thinking and emotion. We can improve reasoning not just by helping integration of different thinking processes but also by linking the socio-emotional learning environments of education and work better. Continuity in mentoring relationships, for example, helps encourage intellectual integrity as well as  the transfer of useful skills from one setting to another (now called “transversal skills”).

More good news on this front, from my personal experience at least, is that most millennials are keen to learn from others, yet are modest intellectually.  While they need some support at key transition points e.g. from college into industry, in fact, they often underestimate the value of their “beginners’ mind”. Industry is set to gain immensely from graduates asking “obvious” questions. It equips us to better combat VUCA and in particular the element of complexity. Therefore, we need to encourage both intellectual integrity and also an intellectual autonomy with graduates confident to pose questions early in their careers.

What are we really educating for?

Passing state and college exams seems less about intellectual autonomy and more a feat of memorisation. However fact-based knowledge alone won’t solve “hard problems” i.e. for which the “solution method and concepts needed for a solution are not obvious”. The bad news is that the learning environment at work is shifting considerably. It is becoming less “kind” and more “wicked” i.e. where the correlation between outcomes and specific decisions or actions are deceptive or non-existent. Therefore, we need grads who are robust enough to look for feedback without prompting and take criticism well. In addition to the intellectual integrity to admit what they don’t know; we need graduates with enough intellectual courage to admit when they don’t know why their actions produce even successful outcomes. In fact, all staff need the intellectual courage to dissent from previous tried-and-tested solutions as and when appropriate. True innovation is not driven by continuous improvement but by associating concepts that often seem unrelated e.g. through integrative thinking. One example of this is Polymerase Chain Reaction developed by Mullis who connected his lab work with childhood experience, recalling how  starch dried into a gel in his mothers’ laundry. It appears that constructive thinking for VUCA combines both critical and broader skills including creative thinking.

Thinking afresh about Graduate Hiring

Clearly, we are asking a lot of graduates in a VUCA age including multiple intellectual traits and useful social habits. If we invest too much faith in any one specific trait to predict job performance, our selection process will sadly disappoint. For one thing, situational variables are highly influential. Even assessment centres that simulate work tasks are unrepresentative from a social point of view. It is the social attachment to existing employees (after graduates are onboarded) that will ultimately drive performance. This, like education itself, takes time to develop. Fast learners are not necessarily indicative of high performers. They tend to bore easily and according to neuroscientists, slow learning and learning under pressure can be more durable as emotions bed down memory. One way or another, it will be a community of learning that we will need to create for both education and work. Employers, when hiring, serve industry well by taking a “no harm” approach to the intellectual courage of all candidates (selected or otherwise).

Soft Skills = Social Capital for Reasoning

Interestingly, neuroscientists now suggest our capacity to reason emerged from us being social animals (and not the other way around). Ultimately, shifting cognitive gears is not just an individual but a collaborative effort as we are best positioned to reframe problems collectively. This is our best chance to get ahead of change (Heffernan). This is particularly important for managing risk as moral heuristics is a socio-cognitive process. We therefore need graduates not just with good thinking but with equally strong communication and relationship-building skills. After all, even a subject matter expert cannot simply produce a “right” answer. He/she must be able to coherently narrate this and persuade others of the rationale.

I’m optimistic based on direct experience of the opportunity to prepare graduates for group sense-making using a heuristics-and biases approach. For example, group exercises can demonstrate clearly how groups converge too easily and/or too early around “what we all know”. The more sophisticated our work settings become, the more sophisticated (including remote) our group problem-solving approaches will need to be. Luckily, millennials are often highly committed to their local communities as volunteers and collaborate well. This is a strong basis for us to build on for effective team dynamics in industry.

Is our Education system a help or hindrance?

Whatever about anyone sitting a state exam this year, at least we still have a broad range of subjects at Leaving Cert. level. This is a positive in order to approach problems from as broad a perspective as possible. I am also relieved about (and petitioned for) the retention of history as a core subject in the Junior Cert. If well-taught, history develops interpretation skills and contextual judgement.

I’d recommend we reconsider the possible value of faith-based education. My strongest memory of religion class in a convent school was of the heated debates rather than the dogma. Even preparation for sacraments at primary level can help us understand principles such as potentiality later in life, not to mention the value of metaphorical thinking to reveal deeper meaning. As technology advances, the focus of third level courses seems to be funnelling into increasingly narrow domains. Yet, the Greek word “telos” meaning “purpose” implies that cognitive development includes a moral component. Indeed, civil engineers in some countries still take an oath on their qualification. I’d recommend that subjects from the humanities including philosophy can help to bridge various disciplines. We should remember that science itself began as “the philosophy of nature” after all.



While good critical thinking skills are vital for VUCA, these are most useful when combined with intellectual versatility, integrity, autonomy and courage. All of these need the right environment to flourish, characterised by an openness to making mistakes and strong trust-based relationships. In fact, this applies as much to industry itself as it does the educational system where we prepare graduates for work – and hopefully for life.  

The author of this article Fiona Fennell is an Industrial Psychologist and the Founder of Think4Purpose. Her website launches soon. Her company helps graduates and industry to deal with VUCA by improving multidisciplinary teamwork.