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What We Wished We Learned in School

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Chris Testa's picture
President Testa Search Partners

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  • Mar 4, 2021

We asked our utility clients for input on what skills and topics they wished they had been taught in school, and what overlooked subjects would help today’s students enter the workforce.  We heard a lot of great ideas and hope educational administrators take note!  And, if you are a young person, here are the top skills executives we spoke to believe students should hone while still in school.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving.  Several clients mentioned the ability to learn how to learn, or to think critically, was vital since advanced critical thinking leads to solving today’s complex problems.  Many students rely on memorization techniques to get good grades rather than learning strong problem-solving skills.  The more practice young people get solving various types of problems, the better prepared they will be for the modern workforce.  Understanding the how and why behind things is important in today’s world.

Finance.  Both business and personal finance were topics we heard often in our surveys.  Those surveyed strongly believe that finance basics should be taught to every student.  This broad topic included understanding how businesses make money and how funds are spent on labor, goods, taxes, etc., understanding a balance sheet and income statement, creating a business case, etc.  On the personal side of finance, we heard examples such as:  budgeting, balancing a checkbook, personal investing, debt management, retirement planning, and tax management.  Some specifics included opening a bank account or retirement account, buying a home, how taxes work and how to file them, the advantages and disadvantages of credit and debit cards, etc. 

Business Basics.  The majority of those surveyed mentioned that business-related subjects would have been ideal to have learned before entering the workforce.  Here are several of them:  The cost of operating a business, what it takes to operate within a large organization (teamwork, showing respect, and valuing the chain of command), understanding contract language and commercial topics and having some basic law knowledge.  One way to learn these skills is to work through real-life business scenarios and case studies and hear from executives on how they solved such challenges.  

Effective Communications.  One of the top skills mentioned was communication skills.  Many young people don’t know how to write in a professional manner, and many others don’t know how to carry on a proper business conversation or deliver a persuasive presentation. The ability to use proper grammar and punctuation is fundamental yet people today are used to the informal way of texting and tweeting to get your point across.  Several clients also mentioned creative writing as a topic they would have loved to have learned, and others mentioned the ability to create effective, engaging presentations using creative slide presentations would have been helpful before entering the workforce.  Some engineering and technical professionals mentioned having the ability to convey technical content in a succinct message was missing from their education.  A prime example we heard was influencing management to invest in technology or influencing a client on the value of a solution.

Sales and Marketing.  Both are critical to attracting new customers and therefore is the lifeblood of any organization, therefore it seems that the lack of sales courses in schools is odd.  And with the advent of digital marketing, there is plenty that should be taught in today’s marketing classes about tools, techniques, and best practices to cost-effectively reach intended audiences.

Diversity.  A few people mentioned diversity in its various forms.  Learning a foreign language was cited as key.  Learning more about ourselves and others and treating all people with respect despite differences in cultures, personality, etc., was mentioned more than once. 

Negotiating.  Most senior leaders and professional recognize that you use negotiating skills almost everywhere, including outside of work, and not just around contract or price negotiations.  The skill of getting to win-win and influencing others is a skill that employees need to learn early in their careers.

Listening.  Many young professionals come into the workplace thinking they are creative and innovative and that more experienced people are stodgy and afraid of change.  What young people eventually figure out is that older employees have lots to offer, and lots of wisdom in terms of why they don't take a business a certain direction.  So, listen before you speak, and communicate with humility.

Networking and Nurturing Connections.  We were a little surprised to hear so many clients mention this topic, but we were glad they did!  As you know, people come and go in our lives, so we need to learn to carve out time to nurture connections and build our network.  Relationships and connections are investments representing time, emotional energy, and money.  It is hoped that young people recognize the importance of one’s network, not just in the workplace, but in life.  Examples cited include how and where to properly network and how to leverage a network for mutual benefit.

Soft Skills.   Several professionals mentioned various soft skills they wished they learned in school.  We couldn’t agree more:  soft skills are vitally important, especially with complex, global work environments with many types of personalities.  One person mentioned they wished they had learned that EQ is as important as IQ.  Others mentioned that teaming, empathy and support of teammates is a catalyst to career growth.  Another leader cited how functional areas are interdependent on other parts of a business and having the smarts to understand how to collaborate with HR, Legal, Finance, Marketing, and Procurement is important to business success.  A fourth element to the concept of soft skills is self-reflection and understanding our strengths and weaknesses (as well as those we work with). Lastly, and mentioned more than once, knowing when to send a thank you email, even when to send a card, are skills they wished they learned in school.  In this world of instantaneous and frankly, impersonal communications, a call just to ask, “how are you doing?”, or a hard written note of thanks and recognition has never been more remembered, valued, or deeply felt.  

Self-Health.  Several clients cited aspects of self-health that they had to learn later in life.  Some cited they wished they were taught classes on how to handle and be aware of stress, anxiety, and depression.  Another professional mentioned that learning meditation, yoga, pilates, exercise, eating properly, and avoiding stressors, was key to a healthy mind and body.  We agree - you can conquer almost anything when your mind and body are right. 

Sustainability and Stewardship.  When you think of the word Amazon, do you think of biodiversity, forests, and rivers, or do you think of online shopping?  The environment isn’t at the forefront of our lives, even though it should be.  We only have one planet, and there is no planet B we can move to when we destroy this one.  Having schools that plant organic gardens would help ensure young people are connected to Mother Earth.  Having a class or two that focuses on responsible management of the local world around us would be ideal so that when young people enter the workforce, sustainability is a key part of the decision-making.

Professional and Career Development Skills.  Various people surveyed listed broad concepts such as time management, personal goal setting, being organized, and being respectful in the workplace.  At least one person wished there was more exploration in high school regarding careers:  what salary one might expect, attributes required to be successful in that field, and how in demand those careers are and expect to be in the future.

Project Management.  The basics of project management would go a long way in most careers, especially the concepts of in-depth planning, understanding requirements before jumping right in, having success metrics to control the project’s progress, communicating with various stakeholders, understanding risks to success and how to manage them, and celebrating successes.

Engineering Concepts.  A client mentioned having the ability to read a drawing, schematic, or plat would help professionals in many industries.  Those surveyed were not suggesting jumping into AutoCAD or BIM software, but having a basic understanding of how to visualize and show how things fit together, function, and relate to the world around us.

Civics.  Someone cited that most Americans have very little understanding of how laws and regulations are made, how the court system really works, and how our representatives are voted in.   Specifically, the role of the U.S. Supreme Court, regulatory agencies (such as FERC, EPA, state Public Service Commissions, etc.), the electoral process itself, each state’s voting laws, and an in-depth understanding of the Constitution and the National Anthem were topics mentioned.

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Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Mar 5, 2021

Thanks for this article.  I certainly agree with all of what those executives suggested. I´m a little surprised that nothing was mentioned about computer basics. I can only suppose that those executives might think their recruits are too computer literate! But really all of the areas mentioned are crucial and, I´m afraid, sorely lacking in many cases.

Maybe the first and last are the ones most in need: Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, and Civics.


Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Mar 8, 2021

Great article - I have always been a big advocate for our schools teaching basic finance skills for sure.  It amazes me how many kids come out and do not even understand the basics of how interest works etc.  I like some of the other items on your list too.  Thanks for sharing this post! 

Jim Horstman's picture
Jim Horstman on Mar 9, 2021

Good list. Some of them should occur in high school (e.g. civics, finance) while the rest almost seem like a college degree program in themselves. I think internships are a great way to learn many of them. When I taught evening courses at a local university I would often require a paper in classes where they were not normally a requirement so that the students, information systems majors, would know it was not just about the bits and bytes.

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