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Employers said empathy is the most important 21st century skill for an HVAC technician. Surprised? So were they.

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Employer partners fill out the T-Profile at a #TeeUpTheSkills design session

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Kicking off #TeeUpTheSkills at Central New Mexico Community College

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This month we traveled to Albuquerque, NM, to kick off #TeeUpTheSkills with Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) and their employer partners, TLC Plumbing and Jaynes Corporation, a construction company. To better understand the employers’ hiring needs, we engaged employer partners with the T-Profile—an “at-a-glance,” employer-designed profile tool that helps employers identify and display which skills (21st century skills and technical skills) are needed for their “hard to fill” positions. The T-Profile also helps students see how their skills align with the jobs employers are seeking to fill.

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After using the tool to reflect on which skills were most important for roles at their company, employers surprised themselves with the results of their T-Profile activity. Tracy Johnson, the Vice President of Service at TLC Plumbing, saw empathy emerge as the most important 21st Century skill for an HVAC technician.

“If I had 50 empathetic applicants with a mechanical aptitude, I would hire them all on the spot.”

As CNM’s employer partners are finding first-hand, the labor market points towards growth for companies who hire skilled contractors—and with that comes an increase in hiring. Construction, along with health care and personal care, will account for one-third of all new jobs through 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unfortunately, there are not enough skilled contractors to meet the needs of today’s labor market. This is a trend not only affecting local employers in New Mexico, but also employers throughout the nation. According to the Associated General Contractors of America, 70% of construction companies nationwide are having trouble finding qualified workers.

As the trades evolve, so do the essential skills needed to perform well in these jobs. There is a growing need for a skilled worker who can enter a client’s home and perform technical duties comfortably and confidently. TLC Plumbing, like other trade companies whose frontline employees are customer-facing, need people who will listen to the customer, validate their frustrations, capably incorporate the perspectives of different groups of people and recognize their needs.

[Download the Badge Toolkit to learn more about the core sub-competencies of the Empathy badge. ]

Denise Ojeda, a longtime electrician turned instructor and industry liaison at Central New Mexico Community College, was also surprised by the employers’ expressed desire for a skill such as empathy. She said, “You used to just throw a body at [the work] and say ‘put your tools to use.’” But in today’s labor market, technical skills alone are not enough to land entry-level jobs. Recognizing the need to move employers beyond identifying required technical skills, we facilitated a session to guide both faculty like Ojeda and CNM’s partner employers to discuss how to equip CNM students with the 21st century skills needed to succeed in entry-level roles and beyond.

But customer service skills, such as empathy and oral communication, are often omitted from trade industry certification programs, particularly within CTE programs and community colleges where technical curriculum is being fast-tracked. The first thing to get cut is often the non-technical skills.

But for many students at CNM who are parents and working other jobs, non-technical skills may be the learning they need. These students are keen to get the most out of their time spent in class, and developing 21st century skills provides lifelong learning that will likely lead to jobs and careers.

The students we worked with are gaining highly technical skills for careers in construction, plumbing and HVAC. Naturally, they thought the most important 21st century skills for the roles they were training for would be closely linked to the technical aspects of their jobs. When students “guessed” which skills the employers named as most important for an HVAC technician, their perceived top 3 skills were initiative, creative problem solving and collaboration. Like the employers, students were surprised to learn that empathy was the number one skill future employers were looking for.

Later in our student session, we identified places where students are already developing essential 21st century skills for their chosen career paths. One student said he practices empathy and “learns from experience” constantly while raising his four daughters. Other students, including some veterans or workers restarting their careers, talked about experiences where they have exhibited flexibility and creative problem solving.

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CNM students participating in a journey mapping exercise at a #TeeUpTheSkills design session

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By connecting the dots with students in this design session, instructors are better able to see how students are already learning and practicing 21st century skills, and how they can integrate these skills in their existing curricula. And those micro-credentials may be the differentiator for these students when they enter the job market. Denise Odeja elaborates:

“In addition to the skills gap for trained craftsmen, the industry is also seeing a skills gap when it comes to professional or soft skills in their workers. …[#TeeUpTheSkills] will give students, faculty, staff, industry partners and their employees the opportunity to learn, and practice the necessary skills that will meet the demands of industry in both technical and soft skills.”

Earning a 21st Century Skills badge micro-credential demonstrates proficiency in a given skill, and sends a signal to employers that students are ready for entry-level positions or professional advancement.