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The surprising thing Google learned about its employees — and what it means for today’s students

Valerie Strauss

The conventional belief about 21st century skills is that students need to master the STEM subjects science, technology, engineering and math and learn to code as well because that’s where the jobs are. It turns out that is a gross simplification of what students need to know and be able to do, and some proof for that comes from a surprising source: Google.

This post explains what Google learned about its employees, and what that means for students across the country.

All across America, students are anxiously finishing their “What I Want To Be …” college application essays, advised to focus on STEM by experts and parents who insist that’s the only way to become workforce ready. But two recent studies of workplace success are opposed to the conventional belief about “hard skills.” Surprisingly, this research comes from the company most associated with the STEM-only approach: Google.

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

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring method by analysing every bit of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company was founded in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; showing an understanding of others (including others’ different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; and being a good critical thinker and problem solver.

Those traits sound more like what one develops as an English major than as a programmer. After this analysis, the company enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors and artists.

Google’s studies are compatible with others trying to understand the secret of a great future employee. A recent survey of 260 employers, which includes both small and big companies, also ranks communication skills in the top three most important qualities by job recruiters. They value both the ability to communicate with one’s workers and to convey the company’s product and mission outside the organisation.

STEM skills are vital to the world we live in today, but technology alone, as Steve Jobs famously insisted, is not enough. We desperately need the expertise of those who are educated to the human, cultural, and social, as well as the computational.