Soft Skills for STEM Success

healthcare worker
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Author: Katie McPhee

While there are currently thousands of STEM positions open, there is a lack of work-ready STEM professionals graduating from higher education institutions. They may have the required technical skills, but many candidates lack the soft skills necessary for workplace success.

This lack of work-readiness is just one aspect of a global phenomenon known as the “STEM Paradox”—where there are more than enough STEM graduates available, but they aren’t able to fill the growing number of open STEM positions in the workplace. One contributing factor to this phenomenon is that, in many STEM classrooms, soft skills simply aren’t given precedence because it’s assumed students will learn those skills in the workplace. Unfortunately, many organizations don’t see it that way.

Organizations need workers with the technical knowledge necessary to complete the specific tasks associated with their job, but they also need workers who can handle organizational tasks not specific to their role. We’ve previously discussed the six soft skills every student should develop before graduation, and while STEM fields naturally encourage skills like critical thinking and problem solving, there are two other equally crucial skills necessary for success: empathetic communication and teamwork.

Empathetic communication

While communication is obviously important in some fields, in STEM fields the importance of communication skills might not always be apparent. However, as author Julia T. Wood outlines in her text, Communication in Our Lives7th ed, these skills are necessary for STEM fields as well:

“Healthcare professionals must communicate effectively to explain medical problems to patients, describe courses of treatment, and gain information and cooperation from patients and their families…Even highly technical jobs as computer programming, engineering, and systems design require communication skills. Specialists must be able to listen carefully, work in groups and teams, and explain technical ideas to people who lack their expert knowledge.”

Employees need to be able to adapt to diverse situations and communicate with diverse people in organizations, and this requires empathy. Wood explains: “Empathy is the ability to feel with another person… to try to recognize another’s perspective and adapt your communication to how he or she perceives situations and people.” Lacking empathy in communication can easily lead to conflicts in the workplace, which impacts an organizations’ productivity, and also can prevent an employee from receiving promotions or even lead to them getting fired.

While classroom activities such as presentations and written reports help with developing certain communication skills, developing empathy may require branching outside the STEM fields. A recent study found that when individuals read literary fiction, “people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.” While taking English courses may not be requisite for many STEM degrees, it seems it may behoove STEM students to sign up for a literature course, or at least read some Chekov in their spare time.


Teamwork is an integral part of working in an organization, and in STEM fields, working ineffectively on a team could have grievous consequences, as Julia T. Wood explains:

“Reports of errors in surgery are not uncommon…One contributor to surgical errors is poor teamwork among those working in the operating room. A survey of more than 2,100 surgeons, anesthesiologists, and nurses at 60 hospitals showed that many teams suffer from weak teamwork. Doctors’ disregard for nurses’ expertise was one of the most commonly cited dynamics that undermined effective teamwork.”

As you can see, poor teamwork not only affects the employees negatively, it is detrimental to the organization overall. Organizations depend on their employees being able to work together, and they won’t hire people who don’t demonstrate some ability to work effectively on a team. One particular aspect of teamwork that continually causes problems in organizations is conflict management, and, as exemplified by Wood’s text, STEM professionals who can’t manage conflict on their teams may end up hurting the very people they’re trying to serve.

Empathetic communication is one of the best ways to manage conflicts, but maintaining a non-confrontational demeanor and attempting to see the situation from the other’s perspective isn’t always easy—especially if emotions become involved. In the classroom, creative group projects are one of the best ways to help students hone these skills because it best simulates the situations they’ll encounter in the workplace. In-class debates are another way to help with conflict management in particular, because students must defend their ideas without devolving into emotional arguments.

Reference: Wood, Julia T. 2015. Communication in Our Lives, 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.