Soft Skills

Nothing sets my tiny public policy heart pitter patter faster than a new article by James Heckman in the American Economic ReviewOctober’s issue brings an article by Heckman, Rodrigo Pinto and Peter Savelyev on “Understanding the Mechanisms Through Which an Influential Early Childhood Program Boosted Adult Outcomes.”

In this latest paper, Heckman and his colleagues re-visit the data from the Perry Pre-School Project to understand what elements of the program caused the positive effects the participants experienced over the course of their lives. The project, “carried out from 1962 to 1967, provided high-quality preschool education to three- and four-year-old African-American children living in poverty and assessed to be at high risk of school failure.” The program emphasized active learning in the classroom and home visits with parents in an attempt to involve them in the education process. Given that the project was conducted with a control group, the outcomes comparing the control and treatment group have provided data for countless academic analyses and a basis for the push for early childhood education as modeled in Chicago by the Ounce of Prevention Fund.

Heckman et al, find

Persistent changes in personality skills play a substantial role in producing the success of the Perry program. The reduction in externalizing behavior, which explains the bulk of the effects of the Perry program on criminal, labor market, and health behavior outcomes, is especially strong.

We offer a new understanding of how a few hours per day of preschool at ages three and four with a curriculum that promotes social competency, planning, and organization can significantly and beneficially affect life outcomes.

At the other end of the education spectrum, these findings mirror what our College to Careers corporate partners are telling us about what skills they value in our students. We are working to make sure our curriculum provides students with the hard skills necessary to succeed in insurance, accounting, banking and other business and professional services fields. Employers are also telling us that soft skills are equally important to employment success – the traits the Perry project attempted to influence, and for which we are building programs to address at City Colleges.

Gap Inc. has played an important role in conducting soft-skills workshops for our students based on their commitment to attract and retain a high quality workforce that also serves the community. Similarly, we  launched the Employment Success Skills Program last Spring, based on Accenture’s Skills to Succeed program, which led to 26 of the 29 student who participated getting placed in jobs.

The evidence, from both the Perry project and the Abecedarian project, show the benefits of early childhood education. Heckman et al.’s latest research supports the notion that development of critical personality skills can lead to better outcomes. City Colleges’ efforts to ensure that more of our students obtain credentials of economic value is grounded in the commitment to ensure our students are job-ready. Employers and academics are telling us it is that hard skills alone won’t prepare our students. Our current focus on holistically addressing employability skills is supported by our own outcomes and the outcomes from Perry and Abecedarian. While nothing can substitute for early intervention, the early returns of our college-level efforts seem to be paying off.

Published by Don Laackman

Leader with non-profit, higher education, and private-sector consulting experience.

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