In an AI-driven future, social skills aren’t just a plus; they’re a prerequisite. Between 1980 and 2012, jobs requiring social skills surged by almost 12%, while their less social counterparts dwindled by 3.3%. By 2030, demand for social skills is projected to skyrocket 26% across all industries.
But social interactions aren’t just necessary on the job. They also play a pivotal role in getting jobs. An estimated 50% of jobs are obtained through personal connections. To boot, estimates suggest up to 70% of all jobs are not published on job search sites.
Even when schools emphasize career-connected learning, they often leave students’ social capital — their access to and ability to mobilize relationships — to chance. Recently, our team at the Christensen Institute partnered with the American Institutes for Research for an 18-month pilot study to improve students’ career connections. Our findings highlight a disconnect: Students hesitate to leverage existing relationships for career insights, let alone forge new ones.
What’s holding them back, and how can schools bridge this social gap?
Tackling the confidence conundrum
Eighty-three percent of teachers and staff in our pilot reported that their students weren’t confident in their ability to communicate with adults about their career interests. During focus groups, many students shared that they weren’t sure how to start an organic conversation about careers or college. In one instance, students were so anxious about a networking event that some couldn’t bring themselves to board the bus.
These findings surface a deeper problem. While schools focus on test scores and GPAs, they’re neglecting the social playbook that’s essential for real-world success. But learning how to network isn’t a spectator sport. To boost student confidence and develop their social skills toward career building, schools need to provide ample opportunities for students to practice; engage students in dialogues about their networking experiences; and equip adults to meet students halfway.
Here’s how to use these three strategies to strengthen students’ networking savvy.
1. Unveil the real deal behind “networking”
Many students in our focus groups perceived networking as awkward and forced. But who says networking has to be “cringe?” Studies show that people open up to networking when they see it as a catalyst for personal growth, not just an exchange of business cards. Framing networking as an opportunity for students to learn about something they’re interested in and gain access to new opportunities can help them develop this mindset. But because passion sparks motivation, it’s important for schools to help students identify their career interests first. If students can’t connect networking to their own future, it may feel phony.
At the same time, schools need to dig deeper, sparking candid conversations about the emotional hiccups students face while attempting to form adult connections. Classroom activities should serve as the starting block for talking through the nitty-gritty challenges and possible solutions.
In our pilot, some educators found that springboard in Connected Futures, a free, research-informed online curriculum designed to help students connect with supportive, nonparental adults. Connected Futures can prime students to talk about their networking fears, allowing educators to tailor experiences to students’ needs.
2. Promote practice and reinforce reciprocity
One strategy to boost students’ networking confidence is to start with people and places they’re already comfortable with. Remember the students who were too nervous to get on the bus? When these students were given the opportunity to interact with unknown adults at their school, they felt much more at ease. As one educator noted, “If you gave them room on their own turf, it became, ‘At least I know I’m in my building so I can show up as my true self.’ It didn’t matter who came in.”
Students can also ease into conversations with working professionals by practicing with trusted adults, such as teachers and family members. Opportunities for practice need not stop there, though. Although many students in our study reported talking to their families and teachers about careers, far fewer reported engaging in career conversations with their broader communities, such as neighbors, members of their faith communities or work supervisors. Having new types of conversations with people they already know can help students move one step closer to reaching out to adults they don’t yet know.
Some adult-student interactions during our pilot suggested that students are more comfortable if they see themselves as an expert on a topic that the adult doesn’t know about. For example, educators in our study observed that simply asking students to show adults they’d never met around their school appeared to increase their confidence. This is because students are no exception to a powerful human drive: the need for reciprocity in relationships.
One pilot site, the Montgomery County Partnership for Children, emphasized reciprocity by “getting [students] into this mindset that you look to them as members of a team and as partners in your growth and in their growth, so you’re also helping the [other person].”
Helping students think about the value they bring to the table — such as gratitude, recognition or enhanced reputation for the adult — can decrease their anxiety in interactions with working professionals.
One more way to help students gain networking practice in a real-world setting is to introduce friendly competition. EmployIndy, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit organization offering apprenticeships for high-schoolers, created a “social capital challenge” to incentivize students to build their social capital. Students received points toward a prize for getting coworkers’ email addresses, asking coworkers about how they obtained their role and inviting coworkers to lunch. The challenge pushed some students out of their comfort zone and provided valuable opportunities for strengthening their networking muscles.
3. Prime employers and volunteers to focus on relationships
Placing the burden squarely on students overlooks the role that institutions play in creating conditions for relationships to blossom. Employer partners and volunteers also may not realize the immense value they can offer by making relationships with young people a primary focus. Therefore, it’s important to engage employers and volunteers in thinking about how they can develop lasting bonds with students that go beyond any single program or intervention.
Apprentice Learning, a nonprofit that provides real-world work experiences for eighth-graders, did just that. They held virtual orientation sessions to gently challenge employers’ beliefs about the impact of relationships, followed by weekly emails containing ice-breaking tips like “chat with your apprentice about your first job” or “share a professional hurdle you overcame.”
By dialing in on relationships, the payoff was unmistakable: More students landed summer internships. As one program leader put it, that change “is because the work site partner and the young person took the time to get to know some things about each other a little bit beyond the ‘how to work’ part.”
The future is social
As the AI revolution accelerates, social skills are becoming career lifelines. Unfortunately, the pandemic put these skills on pause, leaving students scrambling to catch up. It’s a wake-up call for schools: Building academic prowess is no longer enough.
To be clear, social capital isn’t about encouraging students to schmooze their way into unqualified roles; it’s about unlocking doors to more opportunities that align with their interests and unleash their potential.
Our recent study offers a road map. To amplify students’ confidence, we need layered approaches: open dialogues that demystify the emotional hiccups of relationship-building, opportunities for hands-on practice and a call for adults to lean in on the transformative power of connections.
It’s up to us — educators, policymakers, researchers and employers — to ensure students have the tools they need, both academic and social. Because, in the end, the true metric of educational value is not just in the grades students achieve, but in the networks they weave and the lives they lead.
Robert Markle, Ph.D., is a research manager at the Christensen Institute. His work focuses on increasing awareness and adoption of emerging practices for expanding students’ access to opportunity, economic mobility and personal well-being. With a background in implementation science, Markle is interested in how relationship-based initiatives can be optimized for local contexts to maximize their effectiveness.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.