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Google finds STEM skills aren’t the most important skills

Terrific Washington Post column on research done by Google on the skills that matter most to its employees success. Big surprise: it wasn’t STEM. The Post writes:

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both brilliant computer scientists, founded their company on the conviction that only technologists can understand technology. Google originally set its hiring algorithms to sort for computer science students with top grades from elite science universities.

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

Those traits sound more like what one gains as an English or theater major than as a programmer. Could it be that top Google employees were succeeding despite their technical training, not because of it?  After bringing in anthropologists and ethnographers to dive even deeper into the data, the company enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors, artists, and even the MBAs that, initially, Brin and Page viewed with disdain.

This, of course, is consistent with the findings of the employer-led Partnership for 21st Century Learning who describe the foundation skills for worker success as the 4Cs: collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity. And the book Becoming Brilliant which adds to those four content and confidence for the 6Cs.

And consistent with the work on the value of a liberal arts degree of journalist George Anders laid out in his book You Can Do Anything and in a Forbes article entitled That Useless Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket.

It’s far past time that Michigan policymakers and business leaders stop telling our kids if they don’t get a STEM related degree they are better off not getting a four-year degree. It simply is not accurate. (Not to mention that many of their kids are getting non-STEM related four-year degrees.) And instead begin to tell all kids what is accurate that the foundation skills––as Google found out––are not narrow occupation-specific skills, but rather are broad skills related to the ability to work with others, think critically and be a lifelong learner. The kind of skills that are best built with a broad liberal arts education.

The Post concludes:

No student should be prevented from majoring in an area they love based on a false idea of what they need to succeed. Broad learning skills are the key to long-term, satisfying, productive careers. What helps you thrive in a changing world isn’t rocket science. It may just well be social science, and, yes, even the humanities and the arts that contribute to making you not just workforce ready but world ready.


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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

This Post Has 62 Comments

    1. Of course. But not for all kids. What is common for all kids is that the liberal arts/6Cs skills are the foundation skills for whatever path you choose to take after high school/college. There are and will be good-paying careers for those in non STEM fields. In fact, one can make the case that over the long term the proportion of good-paying careers in STEM related fields will go down. That is the Mark Cuban (and many others) argument.

      1. But this situation is also contingent upon assumed differences between ‘science’ and ‘art’ and what not! In fact, a recent book titled _Technological Forms and Ecological Communication: A Theoretical Heuristic_ (2017) is informative in this regard. Its Conclusion also has some sections devoted to an alternative curricular design, parlance. May be useful to this conversation.

  1. ” 4Cs: collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity” Guess who supports these skills? Teacher librarians! Time to hire them back in Michigan schools!!!

    1. Amen! We are big supporters of the 4Cs as the foundation skills for all Michigan students as the real measure of college and career success. For us it is the 6Cs from the book Becoming Brilliant. They add content and confidence.

  2. Very refreshing…. And so positive for all students…. Learn in what you like… And don’t forget to learn all your life! Something I tell my students all the time!

  3. Project Oxygen evaluated most important qualities of top managers at Google – not “employees.” Managers manage people – stands to reason people skills would be more important than technical skills. That’s what they need to be good at their job. But the people they manage – programmers, data analysts, systems designers,, network specialists – need technical skills to do theirs. People skills help too, but for the entry level positions that folks get hire out of college to fill, and for senior technical staff, strong STEM aptitude and education are a must.

    1. If you read the Washington Post article that was the starting point for the post you will find that Google has found these non-occupation-specific capacities essential in the performance of their most productive professional staff as well as managers. And have changed their hiring practices at all professional levels to consider those without STEM degrees. No one is arguing that STEM skills are not a path to good-paying work. But they appear to be not adequate to get to the best-paying work. And also not necessary, even at a company like Google, to get good-paying work.

  4. “skills related to the ability to work with others, think critically and be a lifelong learner. The kind of skills that are best built with a broad liberal arts education”

    That’s a bit of a claim. What makes you think that an arts education is better than a technical education for improving those skills?

    You also seem to have neglected to notice that “problem solving” was up there on google’s list with critical thinking, exactly the skill that is so well practiced in technical subjects.

    1. Its not what I think that matters its what Google and other employers think. And increasingly they are hiring liberal arts majors. See the list of majors that is in the post and the Washington Post article that Google is now hiring from. And a George Anders Fortune article on Silicon Valley now hiring more liberal arts majors than engineers. Problem solving is really important. But the notion that you only learn problem solving in a technical training setting is simply wrong.

  5. STEM skills are very important but these are solitary skills. Once you are out of schools and start working in the outside world, you are expected to work in collaborative environments. Almost all cases, you are expected to work with others. In successful corporations, you will have to work not only with other workers with related skills but also with others who may not have similar background such as non technical executives, assistants, technicians, and others.

    You do not learn these “skills” in schools. As you progress in any business environments, the non STEM skills become more important. That is when what I call liberal arts background becomes more relevant. Curiosity for learning new things, be they managing people, projects, scheduling and organizing and other subjects, become crucial. I studied engineering at U of M including two years in their gad school but I benefited greatly by having four years of liberal arts college education as well as singing in choruses and playing musical instruments with others. The latter experiences taught me to listen to others and collaborate with them. In my opinion, our education system does not emphasize so called liberal educationssuch as histories, literature, music, etc. We need both STEM as well as broadly defined liberal arts education for the country and corporations to succeed.

  6. I graduated from Albion College with a dual major in theater and psychology, two big focuses on the soft skills and humanities. During my four years at that liberal arts college, i became leery that the theater degree would still offer enough courses not to be relegated to a minor-only offering. That was because year over year the entire budget for theater arts (and other arts) was trimmed and pared, and classes killed, and teachers let go because the college was deciding to put more focus into the STEM curriculum. I had to watch as my theater season was cut in half because there was no budget for the shows, while at the same time they were able to build an all new science center and put an overpriced and underwhelming shark tank in the basement and adorn the entryway with a multi- million dollar clock tower that regaled stem students with 32bit bell renditions of tasteless gothic orchestrals.

    Thank you four sharing this article.

  7. Amen! Absolutely agree! I always found that the soft skills provided me an employee with the capacity to be great in our field. I can “teach” and “train” someone on how to do Procurement, but I could not teach (at least not easily) how to be empathetic, creative, collaborative and a good listener. Cher’s for this article!

  8. Watch again the movie “Disclosure” (1994). With soft skills only you cannot create or manage the products in the tech field. But AFTER you already have these STEM skills, then the soft skills will help your career. So it is MORE soft skills but only of you choose between people who already have STEM skills or even brilliancy.

    1. No one is arguing that STEM skills don’t have value. Clearly they do. But they are the not the only degrees that have value. That is why Google as the blog states has “enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors, artists, and even the MBAs that, initially, Brin and Page viewed with disdain.”

  9. Drama Kids is a franchise that uses developmental techniques to build the soft skills listed here. Kids need to learn these skills long before college. Begins in elementary school.

  10. Did you know that a good majority of jobs at companies like Google aren’t even tech related. I am not sure of the exact number, but I do know that Google Sales team is huge and is responsible for a very hefty part of its profits — sales people do not require STEM related skills in order to sell a google product.

    Summer of 2017, I worked with a group of young people in the Bronx who went around the community offering to bring local business owners online. By doing so, they were able to help support their communities while establishing pretty much every soft skill mentioned in this article.

    Those interactions then encouraged students to go back and start exploring web design skills because now they could go out and help offer to build websites and manage reviews and listings, something our kids can do pretty well. Few of the young people from this project had any intention of wanting to develop STEM skills, but the positive engagements led a lot of them to begin exploring things like social media marketing and web design all for the sake of providing a service. All of those are the type of transferable skills that need to be nurtured.

    Big companies only really support initiatives tied to inner city communities when it is through the traditional STEM track. Tons of money goes into promoting coding and computer programming and very little is spent on identifying young people who don’t necessarily excel in those areas.

    1. Thank you for sharing that! That sounds like such a wonderful and meaningful project for the kids. You make such an important point that not all kids are going to be programmers or into STEM and that that is ok too and they can still make a difference!

  11. I’m teaching a senior high school software engineering class this semester. We start off with IEEE’s SWEBoK (https://twitter.com/CWcomptech/status/962052353644945408) Collaboration and communication are keys to building successful software projects. The seniors know this in their bones after watching what poor communication and collaboration did to projects the year before. They aren’t going through the motions of teaching IEEE’s software best practices, they are evangelizing them.

    I’ve got a liberal arts degree and a pile of technology qualifications. Both things have value, but to say that STEM does not mean collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking suggests a failure on the part of traditional STEM programs. Those teachers who treat science, technology and engineering courses as knowledge based learning are undermining the practical skills needed to actually perform STEM. Perhaps the real issue is we don’t do enough applied STEM and have too many academics treating it as a white colour, theoretically driven discipline.

    Anyone who teaches modern software engineering would be mad to try and teach it as a solo coding course based on theory. No one actually builds software that way, least of all Google.

    1. Exactly! Both skills set are valuable. I would argue that one has a longer half life. In addition, those with the Cs and without STEM skills are doing well in the labor market today and will in the future. One set of skills is foundational for all, the other isn’t. That is not the message conventional wisdom is delivering.

  12. The notion that STEM is a dehumanized, decontextualized set of skills is unfortunately one that most school systems and our popular culture tends to further. I would ask: what do we mean by STEM? Who does STEM? Where and why? In answering these questions, and in considering the human race’s history, it becomes clear that humans have engaged in both artistic and scientific practice for millennia. We sing, we make music, we design abodes, we look at the skies….- because we are human. Reducing these ways of knowing and experiencing our world to just one way is an artificial act. We are human, we are complex, and our ways of understanding ourselves and the world around us are varied and fascinating. Why not find ways to express this to our youth so that they can be protected from the false dichotomy of STEM vs non-STEM. Although my nonprofit is called talkSTEM, we firmly believe that Art & Design is embedded in STEM just as STEM is embedded in the work of every artist (not just da Vinci). We are committed to sharing this perspective of a unified set of experiences in all our programs and publications.

  13. A lot of these skills are possed or developed during military service, most of these veterans have these people skills with their technical background training. People Skills are required to lead people, you have to have people skills and be a people person to have compassion for your troops. “The day that your people stop coming to you with their problems and issues, is the day you have end to being their leader”.

  14. No single system of learning can be full proof because every learner is different and unique.
    The best a student can learn are the broader life skills like confidence, logic , analysis, interpretation and human values.
    I believe this article should be an eye opener for many theoreticians , educational analysts, school heads etc.

  15. What evidence is there for the (causal) claim that the “ability to work with others, think critically and be a lifelong learner …are best built with a broad liberal arts education”? Are there actually controlled studies that answer this question?

    1. I don’t know the answer to your question. Its our point of view. What I do know is that Google, as the article, states decided, based on their research to hire humanities majors as having the skill set of their most successful employees. And that lots of professional schools are adding the liberal arts to their teaching and learning because they believe it is the best way to instill these skills. Search under liberal arts on my blog and you will find more of my thinking on the topic.

  16. I would add another “c” to the list. Character. Most of the hard and soft skills can be taught, but, in most cases, people either have character or they don’t.

  17. Clearly, from a group of people selected for being the best at a single ability, another ability will be what separates one from others in the group.

    1. Possible. But Google’s response, which is ongoing, is to hire those without your “best at a single ability”. As we quote in the article: ” After bringing in anthropologists and ethnographers to dive even deeper into the data, the company enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors, artists, and even the MBAs that, initially, Brin and Page viewed with disdain.”

    1. Wrong. From the Washington Post article cited in the post: “Project Aristotle, a study released by Google this past spring, further supports the importance of soft skills even in high-tech environments. Project Aristotle analyzes data on inventive and productive teams. Google takes pride in its A-teams, assembled with top scientists, each with the most specialized knowledge and able to throw down one cutting-edge idea after another. Its data analysis revealed, however, that the company’s most important and productive new ideas come from B-teams comprised of employees who don’t always have to be the smartest people in the room.”

      1. Anyone who has worked with children from birth – five, for any length of time, no matter their skill level- can tell you this to be true.

        It can be seen in the child’s processes for problem solving and proper brain 🧠 development.

        If’n y’all need a little “reality” or “statistics” to back it up, check out our current employment stats. Hmmmmm.

        If a piece of early year brain development is missing (soft skills) the complete process of neuron development is disrupted and atrophies – like puzzle pieces that don’t fit properly. Thus, the gaps we see in our standardized test scores.

        Wake up-
        Look at the whole child when we teach our nations 🇺🇸 children. I promise you will save money in the long run and encourage our future students self reliance.

        Duh 🙄
        Stellar Teachers ⭐️

  18. This is no surprise.
    What we NEED are smaller class sizes, giving every student a voice and opportunity for collaboration. What we NEEEEEED are more teaching assistants, more ART, more MUSIC – art and music provide personal commitment, accomplishment and collaboration. When I visit schools, I see hardworking, unappreciated teachers who are not being supported by the community. Teachers who have smaller classes and assistants can create collaborative learning experiences and build lifelong learners. and we need better infrastructures! Crumbling schools are depressing. Healthy food!– there are too many students who are not food-stable.
    HEALTH insurance for families!!! You cannot learn if you are sick, your family is sick, and you are going bankrupt.
    Lastly, testing has derailed education for greed. Remove the Bureaucrats from the equation. Stop trying to run schools like corporations. They need to be Care-Centers where kids can learn and grow in safe environments.

  19. Why were the Technical Science degrees like Organizational Leadership and Supervision, from University’s like Purdue, ignored in the article? Seems to me, that those degrees would be even more beneficial than a Liberal Arts Degree.

    1. The name on the degree doesn’t matter, it the skill set that that degree develops. So if the Purdue degrees develop the capacities Google identified they are right on. If they don’t then they are not. The liberal arts aren’t only taught in majors that lead to liberal arts degrees. It the non-occupation, broad, rigorous skill set that matters.

  20. Nice article, but what it doesn’t say is that while the soft skills mentioned ARE more important, you often don’t get in the door at a place like Google wo technical skills, and most people who major/minor in the humanities don’t compliment that w a minor/major in computer science or math. Add to this that there is a gargantuan emphasis on technical skills and coding “to get good jobs,” which seems 100% at odds with an article like this one. I agree with the article, but you can’t have it both ways. Fact of the matter is that a lot of people go after what they see as a skillset to land a job and earn good money, and if it’s soft skills, companies need to start talking about that.

    If soft skills matter that much, Google should hire people with humanities degrees and teach them to code.

    1. What the article does say is that Google has changed their hiring practice. “After bringing in anthropologists and ethnographers to dive even deeper into the data, the company enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors, artists, and even the MBAs that, initially, Brin and Page viewed with disdain.” And the George Anders Forbes article cited in the post presents the data that it is not just Google who are hiring liberal arts majors because of their soft skills.

  21. I’d love for you to check out what we are doing in Career Services at Michigan State working with a concept called the T-Shaped Professional as well non-cognitive factors for success.

  22. Good info. Thanks for sharing. Not everyone will end up working for Google. My son will continue working towards his STEM degree at the private school he attends. Luckily, his school also focuses on several of these other soft skills which are important to long term success. This is something I never had at my prep school or college.

    1. That’s great. For those going into STEM occupations the non-occupation skills that turn out to matter more for job and career success should be a part of all STEM education. For those not going into STEM those other skills are the key to a good-paying career.

  23. Well, a large international company hired a retired English professor to do what? Exactly what engineers and other STEM degree people though was unnecessary, namely proper grammar, proper syntax, proper spelling and proper punctuation. Why? Because communication by writing was breaking down. Engineers told her ‘you know, well, they’ll get what I’m driving at’, which does not fly when someone isn’t into mind reading. Those with proper communication skills, both verbal and written were promoted. For one reason, get sued, go to court and have some lawyer read the babble that is printed and it can cost a company. One company lost several million over a ‘comma’. Two ideas were not separated so, the judge ruled as read. Likewise, another manager gained success because his interpersonal skills were stronger than his engineering skills. He was able to focus on developing employees strengths and not berating them over their weaknesses. Thus performance and enthusiasm increased as well a productivity. Everyone has a large circle on their chest which reads inside “I Am Important”. We are all human and knowledge of the ARTS helps develop that side.

  24. If you are a surgeon than how good surgeon you are is mainly based on your skills as a surgeon e.g. how well you can perform an operation. Same is with programming. And anything else. I think you are misinterpreting the research done at google. Google founders themselves based Google on invention which is google algorithm. If they weren’t good computer scientists, Google would have never existed.

    1. What matters is not my interpretation of the research, its Google’s and other employers. George Anders’ Forbes article cited in the post that Silicon Valley employers are now hiring more liberal arts majors than engineers is reality.

      1. “George Anders’ Forbes article cited in the post that Silicon Valley employers are now hiring more liberal arts majors than engineers is reality.” -> That still doesn’t negate the point I am making. I am saying when you are a computer scientist or a programmer or anything else e.g. a surgeon, you must be an expert in your field, and in the case of computer science (STEM), the only way to be that is to have good STEM skills. That’s it. The fact that Syllicon Valley hires more liberal arts majors or whatever doesn’t negate my point anyway.

        1. No one, certainly not Google, is arguing that technical skills aren’t important. They are. But what Google and other employers have found is that technical skills alone are not enough to make the best employees and that there are lots of important, high-wage jobs where STEM technical skills aren’t mandatory. That is not a message that kids, parents and educators are hearing. With the conventional wisdom being that the only four-year degree that is valued in the labor market are STEM degrees.

          1. OK then I didn’t get correctly the message of your post. My point was that as a STEM professional, a person should strive to improve her/his STEM skills and not communication skills etc. (which are also important but not as much).

  25. I agree with your point that 4C and Soft Skills Google is now looking for are evergreen skills that my school never spent enough time teaching me. We need more of that. But we also need more STEAM. It’s not just the technical expertise that is important, it’s the soft skills kids learn pursuing STEAM.

    Mental Toughness
    And more….

    1. Sure. The soft skills (which really are as a rigorous as the so-called hard skills) can be integrated into all technical training programs/degrees. STEM, STEAM, whatever. The problem is they too often aren’t.

  26. Great article. Having a specific Skill set, regardless of occupation is extremely important. Doctors, Lawyers, Teachers, Engineers, Electricians, Plumbers, Programers, Musicians, Artists, etc. all need skills. But, it seems the BEST employees are often the ones who have the ability to develop genuine relationships with their clients and coworkers. In the end, it’s not about the “product” you produce; it’s about the people you impact.

  27. I think. Hard (Ex:STEAM) and Soft (Ex:Coachable) skills are the two sides of the same coin. I don’t see any point of comparing these two since they are both important and aren’t alternative to each other, either.

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