Since the dawn of civilisation, pandemics have been part of our human history. From the Plague of Athens to the infamous Black Death which killed almost half of the European population in the 1300s, we know one thing for sure – with every global pandemic, comes global devastation.
The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. We have seen nearly 2.5 million deaths worldwide, almost half of the world’s workforce population at risk of losing their jobs, and millions of businesses facing existential threat. However, as the world continues to grapple with COVID-19, our children are fighting a different battle.
The inability to learn in classrooms and play in the streets, may not seem as big a deal as compared to the political and economic instability that adults face, but that could not be more wrong. Like many of us, children mourn the loss of normality. Beyond that, our children have also lost their childhood and teen formative years crucial for their soft skills development.
With schools closed and the Movement Control Order (MCO) limiting their social lives, students are missing out on polishing their soft skills such as communication skills, critical and creative thinking, collaboration, teamwork, and character building. These skills need to be developed through rigorous peer-to-peer social interaction as well as lived experiences that can shape their maturity and worldview.
As adults complain about the monotony of being stuck at home and not being able to hang out with family and friends, our students are suffering a much bigger consequence – one that impacts their employability and opportunities in the future. In the context of development, losing almost one full year of social interaction and informal learning can be extremely damaging for the growth of the students.
In a report published by Khazanah Research Institute in 2018, it was found that employers rate soft skills as more important than academic qualifications. Yet, the Malaysian education system continues to emphasise on academic and professional qualifications. This means that the only place our students are able to develop their soft skills is through after-school learning and their social lives which are pretty much non-existent during the MCO.
This is particularly worrying in the wake of Industrial Revolution 4.0 which shifts the job market towards automation, as well as the rising youth unemployment rate in Malaysia. According to the Department of Statistics, while the adult employment rate declined to 3.2%, the unemployment rate for youth aged 15 to 24 years rose to 13.9% in 2020.
The impact of prolonged lockdowns has become an alarming cause for concerns for parents, educators, and the job market. There is an urgent need for remedial actions to ensure that our children are equipped with the right soft skills to take on their role as leaders of tomorrow. Now is the time for us to take the extra effort to provide our children with the platforms to engage in constructive discourse and interact with their peers beyond their virtual schooling hours.
Recognising this need, the Malaysian Institute for Debate and Public Speaking (MIDP) and Taylor’s College, have partnered up to establish The Hub For Soft Skills Education to fill in the gap for soft skills education through training activities and competitions focusing on debating, public speaking, storytelling, drama, spoken word poetry, and many others.
Beyond improving on the much-needed soft skills of our students, these programmes are specifically curated to help students build confidence, improve persuasion and presentation techniques, express their ideas and thoughts in a critical and creative manner, problem-solve on their feet, as well as meet like-minded friends while finding a community of peers to bond with.
It is time we realise that beyond ringgit and dollar, the COVID-19 pandemic presents us with this insidious problem. Soft skills are no longer “nice to have”, but it is crucial for nation building. As parents and educators, we should encourage students to participate in programmes that can effectively develop them. We do not have the luxury of time to wait and hope that our children somehow manage to develop these skills while being stuck at home.
Recruiters and HR professionals often joke about how employers are looking for fresh graduates with skills equivalent to someone who has five years’ worth of working experience. But with limited social interaction and meaningful lived experiences with their peers, the demand for soft skills has never been more alarming for the lockdown generation.
This article is co-authored by Josephine Tan, the Campus Director of Taylor’s College and Emellia Shariff, the CEO of Malaysian Institute for Debate & Public Speaking (MIDP).