The link between outdoor education and the personal attributes employers want

by Mark Bruce-Miller

Earlier this year Forbes magazine published an intriguing article outlining the personal attributes leading companies were looking for in candidates they were interviewing.

Mike Howells, President of Workforce Skills at Pearson commented that “..the skills employers seek revolve around human skills—or ‘Power Skills’… what makes a difference in employee skills are the soft skills, like problem-solving or personal learning, which showcase individuals’ eagerness to continue growing and learning new skills throughout their career.”  

Aptitude in so called ‘soft skills’ are one of the things that separate candidates from one another in an interview. Encouragingly, soft skills can be developed in a similar way to how ‘hard skills’ are often learned. The trouble is that our modern education system generally puts a lot of emphasis on hard skills. Teachers are in a tricky position because they need to ensure that their students are proficient at these hard skills and may run out of time or lack opportunities to teach soft skills.  

The article lists communication, customer service, leadership and cultural and social intelligence as desirable skills. Howells goes on to outline what makes a new candidate truly valuable: “Their interpersonal skills—the way they can solve problems, collaborate, strategize and do all the other things that only humans can do.” He also notes that “Tech skills are table-stakes… we will always be updating them… But technology isn’t replacing human workers—it’s augmenting them.”  

It seems hard skills get you the interview, but it’s the soft skills that get you the job and help you succeed to your potential. Soft skills, otherwise known as Emotional Quota (EQ) contrast with IQ which is so critical for hard skills. For parents and students, the obvious question is: where am I going to learn about communication, collaboration, conflict resolution, leadership, interpersonal behaviour and social intelligence?  

The 7 essential employability skills as identified by Aotearoa New Zealand employers.

In an Aotearoa New Zealand context, the Employability Skills Framework was developed in 2016 by the Ministry of Education after extensive stakeholder consultation and student testing. The framework identifies “the soft skills or capabilities most desired in young people by New Zealand employers”. Unsurprisingly, attributes in the framework closely mirror the Forbes article written by a leading business and economic commentator half a world away. Coincidence?  

Whatever you do you’ll need other humans to pull it off.  

There are very few professions that operate outside of human interaction. In fact, for most jobs, interacting with other people is a critical part of doing the work. This might include relationships with staff, managers, owners or customers. It could also be that you need to talk and negotiate with external stakeholders like investors, suppliers or support staff. It’s almost impossible to avoid interacting with other people. Even a zoo has an HR department.  

It makes you wonder why we aren’t prioritising EQ in our education system. Are we naive? Or have we simply assumed that people learn these skills along the way through family and community interactions outside the workplace? If Forbes has taken the time to write about the lack of these skills in interviews, we might need to rethink our assumption that EQ develops innately.  

The beauty of experiential outdoor education is that it starts with people first and moves to the hard skills once everyone is aligned. It’s important to ensure that everyone is on the same page before paddling a waka out into the ocean or heading off towards the top of a mountain. Even small children understand that the group should stay together and they ought to work together to carry everything they need.  

Participants on outdoor experiential education programmes at Whenua Iti take on challenges they wouldn’t normally experience, like back-packing or abseiling

It’s easy to assume that in our highly mechanised world of digital tools and fancy devices that something as simple as travelling as a group along a track is no longer relevant. What we’re finding for students of all walks of life is that being outside is as valuable now as it’s ever been, perhaps more so.  

Making time to temporarily disconnect from the noisy digital world allows students to regain a sense of belonging to a greater whole. It shows them that they are part of an ecosystem and that to succeed they need the support of others and that they need to support them back. Time spent outside confronts their typical modes of behaviour because there’s no screen to hide behind, no filters, no avatars and no emoji.  

While this can initially be disorienting, students frequently comment at a course debrief that they had met someone they’d been at school with for years – seemingly for the first time – or that they’d accomplished something they didn’t think they could do. We hear this kind of feedback on a weekly basis. We see the breakthroughs, and we share their triumph. Recently, we wanted to measure and evaluate these results which culminated in our in-house report on course impact.   

Those in the outdoor education sector know the power of achieving a difficult goal with a group. This is especially true if they need to overcome social, environmental and physiological adversity to do so. If the group stays together for a few days and their challenges are slowly increased by a skilled instructor, the potential for personal growth is astounding.  

As we look forward to an increasingly complex and fast-paced work environment it’s clear that success will be measured in very different ways than it is today. The ability to work well together, to solve problems collaboratively, to lead with compassion and strength and to actively listen will be critical to personal and professional achievement.  

If we’re honest about setting students up for success, we need to ensure that EQ is developed to the same level as IQ. Experiential outdoor education is a counterpoint – perhaps even an antidote – for many of the challenges students will face. When Forbes and the Ministry of Education tell us it’s time to prioritise EQ we ought to listen because if we don’t, we risk a future with dispassionate, rigid, mechanical and downright unhuman organisations.  

Find out more 

Experiential education, particularly in an outdoor context, has an internationally proven record for developing the EQ attributes listed in the Forbes article. Here’s a 2016 research paper from Otago University about the elevated levels of self-esteem for participants following a 10-day voyage, and another about the importance of social connectedness in adventure education programming.  

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