Parents, career counselors, and teachers alike have been steering students toward STEM degrees (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) because they felt that these skills were essential to joining the modern workforce. Coding has also been a popular recommendation despite not fitting into the STEM acronym. Tech-giant Google was often cited as the future of business and Exahibit A of why STEM training was so essential.
Research conducted by Google itself does not support this conclusion, however. The company placed a strong emphasis on formal STEM training from its incorporation in 1998 until 2013, when it decided to prove that STEM degrees were the most valuable for students by closely examining all of the firing, hiring, and promotion decisions the firm had ever made. The study, named Project Oxygen, produced surprising results.
Of the eight most important characteristics of a Google employee, the “hard skills” learned in pursuit of a STEM degree ranked dead last in importance. In fact, it was bested by seven different “soft skills,” including the ability to communicate well, being a good coach, critical thinking and problem solving skills, listening well, having empathy for one’s colleagues, making connections across complex ideas, and working with individuals from different backgrounds and perspectives.
Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page initially saw degrees in the humanities with disdain, and brought in expert ethnographers and anthropologists to confirm the results of Project Oxygen. Their deep dive concurred that STEM training was not mandatory of Google’s top employees, causing Google to expand its hiring practices to include humanities majors, artists, and even MBAs.
A more recent study Google released in the Spring of 2017 came to a similar conclusion. Project Aristotle was designed to analyze the productivity of the company’s inventive teams. Google takes great pride in its “A” teams comprised of the smartest, most influential scientists in their fields. However, Project Aristotle revealed that the company’s “B” teams with less intellectual horsepower are actually responsible for the majority of the most significant breakthroughs.
Soft skills, such as intellectual curiosity, equality, empathy, generosity, and emotional intelligence, were cited as the primary reason the “B” teams were able to outperform their more STEM-oriented counterparts. Notably, the study found that an open working environment where everyone is able to share their ideas without fear of ridicule is absolutely essential to a successful collaboration.
All research must be replicated elsewhere before it is accepted as scientific fact, and numerous other technology experts focus on attributes beside STEM training in their hiring decisions. For example, billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban is known to look for philosophy majors to invest in on the hit show “Shark Tank.”
Likewise, the National Association of Colleges and Employers listed effective communication skills as one of the three most important skills any job applicant can have. This group is comprised of small firms and giants such as IBM and Chevron, so its recommendations are applicable to a broad swath of the business world.
Finally, the Partnership for 21st Century Learning stresses the importance of “4C’s” for succeeding in the modern workforce: Creativity, Communication, Collaboration, and Critical Thinking. Some related sources, such as the book “Becoming Brilliant,” add Content and Confidence to bring the total up to six C’s, but the differences are largely semantic. Soft skills are vital in today’s workforce.
This does not mean that STEM training is useless to modern students, as many well-paying jobs will always demand it. The mistake is in stressing STEM instruction to the exclusion of everything else, a practice that many top technology companies, including Google, are learning the hard way. The best approach to education is almost certainly to expose students to both STEM instruction and liberal arts classes intended to improve their softer skills.