Why Manners Matter as Much as Math

Recent advances in computer technology have made everyday tasks more convenient – you can now use your smartphone to hail a ride, keep track of your finances, manage your to-do list, and even learn yoga. In spite of the benefit that today’s computers offer, the pace of their advancement has raised fears that human labor will soon become obsolete. Studies such as Frey and Osborne’s “The Future of Employment,” which has estimated that 47 percent of all U.S. occupations were “at risk” of being automatized over the next 10 to 20 years, lead us to wonder: which jobs are safe from computers?

In an August 2015 working paper, Harvard professor David J. Deming shows that strong social skills, which have proven difficult to automate, are increasingly valuable in the labor market. Nearly all job growth since 1980 has been in occupations that are social skill-intensive, while so-called “routine” jobs with little social interaction have declined substantially.

Additionally, jobs with high social skills requirements have experienced greater growth throughout the wage distribution since 1980. With only a few exceptions, the occupations that have experienced the greatest increase in real wage growth have been those that require workers to have both math skills and socials skills.

What may be surprising to readers is that jobs that are math-intensive but have little social interaction have declined in terms of overall share of the U.S. labor force, and wage growth for such jobs have been positive but relatively modest. As Deming said in an interview with Harvard Business Review editor Nicole Torres, “The days of being able to plug away in isolation on a quantitative problem and be paid well for it are increasingly over. You need to have both types of skills.”

The reason for the high value of social skills in the labor market is two-fold. First, according to Deming’s model, social skills reduce coordination costs associated with teamwork, meaning that workers trade tasks more effectively to play to each other’s strengths. This idea is supported by previous research that shows that a test designed to measure social abilities predicts team productivity even after controlling for the average intelligence of team members.

Another reason that social skills have gained value in the market is that socially-intensive occupations cannot easily be done by computers. Human interaction requires empathy and a something psychologists call “theory of mind,” the ability to understand others’ mental states based on their behavior. Jobs with greater social interaction also require workers to adapt to changing circumstances, which is something that humans can do better than computers.

What does all of this mean for job seekers and employers? The message is clear for job seekers – they should make sure that their work is allowing them to develop and hone their social skills, and should highlight them in resumes, application materials, and interviews.

However, the responsibility to acquire valuable social skills should not be placed solely on workers. Companies should make employee training programs an important part of their overall talent strategy.

Employers that offer robust learning opportunities for their staff not only function better because they have more effective employees – they also gain an advantage when it comes to accessing new sources of talent and retaining the skilled workers that they have. Given the tightening of the American labor market projected over the coming years, an investment in employee skills training is one that companies can’t afford not to make.

The GradsofLifeVoice Forbes team provides thought leadership, research and expert commentary on innovative talent pipelines and related issues such as the skills gap, income inequality, workforce diversity, and the business case for employment pathways. We seek to change employers’ perceptions of young adults with atypical resumes from social liabilities to economic assets. This post was originally featured here.

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