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Scholarly Technical Education Publication Series (STEPS) Vol. 2


Soft Skills in Polytechnic: Students’ Perspectives


Author:

    Riam Chau Mai
    Commerce Department
    Politeknik Ungku Omar (PUO)
    Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia
    bb_ooi8989@yahoo.com

Abstract

Employers in today’s job market seek for employees who have the ability to integrate their technical knowledge with their acquired soft skills. The integration of soft skills into technical training is crucial in the development of the graduates to be competent in jobs that will enable them to be competitive in the world of work. This has to be prioritized by higher education institutions in the ministry. Thus, necessary measures have been introduced to include the training of soft skills into the mainstream curriculum. Mandated by the Ministry of Education (formerly Ministry of Higher Education) to inculcate soft skills in polytechnic students, significant steps have been taken by the polytechnic schools to introduce soft skills, one of them is through the Industrial Training Soft Skills (ITSS) module which was launched in 2006.

This paper reports students’ perceptions on the importance of soft skills and perceived level of soft skills competencies, as included in the ITSS module, assessed before and after industrial attachment in various companies. The research involves a survey of 353 pre-industrial training students and 359 post-industrial training students using a 6-point Likert scale. The population consists of students who had undergone the ITSS module from four polytechnics in the northern region of Malaysia (Kedah, Perlis, Penang). It is a combination of established and newly-built polytechnics located reasonably close to industrial zones in this region. Moreover, courses offered in these polytechnics such as: engineering, commerce, hospitality and information technology (IT) represent major courses offered by the Malaysian polytechnic education system. The findings of the study suggested that, generally students were very positive with the importance of soft skills and their soft skills competency. The teamwork, decision making and time management skills are found to be areas where improvements are needed most. The skills relating to communication (both written and oral), learning and interpersonal skills are identified to be needing improvement as well.

Key words: Soft skills, polytechnic, competency, industrial training


Introduction

The mismatch in what students learn in higher education institutions and what they need to know and should be able to do in the workplace is a long ongoing issue. Employers always raise a concern that they are not able to find graduates with the required skills (Dunne & Rawlins, 2000; Hesketh, 2000; Lee, 2003). In Malaysia, graduates are found to lack the necessary skills needed to function effectively at the workplace (Bakar & Hanafi, 2007; Jusoh, Razak, & Chong, 2007; Kamsah, 2006; Shah, 2008; Sidhu, 2011; Woo, 2006). Furthermore, employers and professional bodies worldwide are in consensus that higher education institutions should adapt and change at an even greater pace than in the past in order for them to be able to develop a workforce that is highly skilled and ready to face the challenges of increased global competition (Dunne & Rawlins, 2000; Keep & Mayhew, 1999; Ministry of Higher Education Malaysia, 2006; Ong, Sharma, & Heskin, 2003). On the other hand, Evers et al. (1996) is of the opinion that education is not doing poorer, but it is the skills demanded by employers that have increased.

To be competitive, Malaysia must adopt an education system that is market-driven and able to produce work-ready graduates. In order to orient the educational system into that goal, the teaching and learning systems should be up to date and are capable of developing graduates trained with generic competencies as needed by the job market. This can be acquired through real work experience and other handson activities. As mentioned by Coll, Zegward and Hodges (2002), not all skills can be acquired in the classrooms. Some skills are best developed in the workplace via hands-on experience. Indeed, industrial training programs form an essential part towards this end.

Industrial training has been proven to be able to provide students with opportunities for an intensive work-based exposure to a broad range of operations within a company (Crossley, Jamieson, & Brayley, 2007). It can also be considered as a performance measure and as such is thought to be more valid than traditional paper and pencil tests in classrooms (Allen, 2004). In addition, industrial training can be a very effective assessment vehicle in evaluating the quality of academic product. Usually, if employers are satisfied with students’ or graduates’ performance, it is generally assumed that the institution’s curriculum has met or even surpassed the employers’ needs (Verney, Holoviak, & Winter, 2009). Realizing the importance of these findings, the Industrial Training Soft Skills (ITSS) module has been developed and incorporated into polytechnic industrial training program.

The Industrial Training Soft Skills Module (ITSS)

In its first launch, the ITSS module was developed and embedded as part of the industrial training program for Malaysian polytechnic students to enhance immediate practice of the skills learned from school. Feedback forms from industries collected during the students’ industrial training program were used as basis in designing the ITSS module. This collective feedback is also a very precious input for curriculum improvement in order to meet employers’ needs and expectations in the future. Issues such as the lack of practical application as lamented by employers can be minimized and students can develop various applied workplace skills for transition from the classroom to the world of work. As mentioned by Peacock and Ladkin (2002), the industry’s involvement in course design is essential to ensure that the right skills are provided to students. Therefore, the development of soft skills with the participation of the industry as implemented in the ITSS module is projected to be unique and more effective.

The ITSS module consists of generic elements such as positive personality, communication skills, work etiquette, work exposure and report writing. It is offered in the second and third semester for certificate and diploma level students, respectively. This module accounts for one hour credit and students are not allowed to enrol in industrial training if they have not successfully gone through this module. The objective is to prepare polytechnic students with generic competency for industrial training as well as for employment. During their industrial training, students are evaluated by their employers. Therefore, in investigating the preliminary outcome of the module, perceptions of soft skills competency from both the pre and postindustrial training students are deemed necessary. Students’ self-rating is considered a valuable input in investigating their personal view of soft skills competency before and after real industrial experience. The industrial training is a good training foundation for students to provide a reasonable perception of the importance of soft skills as well as their competency in soft skills. Moreover, students’ real experience can be a valuable contribution in investigating current needs of employers among polytechnic graduates.

Competency

Prior to examining students’ perceptions on soft skills competency, it would be appropriate to clarify the term ‘competency’ particularly in the context of this study. Studies have defined competency differently according to context. Boyatzis (1982) for example defined competency as “the underlying characteristics of a person which involved a motive, trait, skill, aspect of one’s self-image or social role, or a body of knowledge used and they are generic in nature or can appear in many different work” (p. 21). For Illeris (2008), “the concept of competence was referred to as what a person is actually able to do or achieve” (p.1). However, Woodruffe (1993) argues that these definitions is open to a multitude of interpretations and suggested that competency should refer to a “set of behaviors, skills, knowledge and understanding which are crucial to the effective performance of a position” (p. 29).

The definitions seem to hold a great deal of promise and hardly get away with different interpretations and practices similar to soft skills definition. To add to the impetus, there are also disparity between competency and competence. According to Eraut (1998), the United States (US) literature refers to the term “competency” as a specific capability and “competence” has a more holistic meaning; meanwhile, Australian authors define “competencies” as particular attributes, such as knowledge, skills and attitudes and jointly underlying “competence”. Eventually, in a workplace context, competency is defined as a combination of cognitive skills, personal or behavioral characteristics which are a function of an individual’s personality (Hodges & Burchell, 2003).

In summary, the definitions discussed suggest many interpretations of competency, depending on individual or organizational context and purpose. Of particular importance to the definition is the statement that competencies are concerned with people’s behavior that is relevant to performance in the job and it must result in something observable. Given that there is a variety of definitions and interpretations of competency, thus, if this term is defined in this study. Competency in this study refers to something that a person is capable of doing but not necessarily observable, or what a person knows and can do (adapted from Eraut, 1998). This adapted definition has not fully taken into consideration the issue of observation at the workplace, as the second group of polytechnic students participating in the study are students who have undergone industrial attachment for only five months. This duration is rather short for proper training and experience to take place. Moreover, the real performance of the students may not be portrayed in a short period of time. Students may not have the opportunity to experience work related skills or if it so, various training background might limit their perceptions of competency. This is the uncontrolled variable that is not taken into consideration while conducting this study.

Objectives of the Study

Although the importance of soft skills has been acknowledged by the management strata of Malaysian polytechnics, the in-depth implementation of soft skills training is still new in the Malaysian tertiary education system, particularly in polytechnics. Hence, questions have been raised as to how well the module has been implemented. Not only do we need to determine whether the students have acquired the knowledge on soft skills, we also need to know whether they are applying what they have learned and which areas still need to be improved in the module. Though there are numbers of action research and full research that have been conducted by both the polytechnic and Polytechnic Division on students’ soft skills, there are still complaints received from employers on polytechnic students’ soft skills. This study investigates the perceptions of one of the stakeholders who are directly involved in the ITSS: students who have undergone soft skills training via the ITSS module, with and without industrial training experience.

The objective of this research is to explore students’ perceptions on soft skills implemented and delivered in the ITSS module. The specific objectives are to:

  1. Investigate stakeholders’ (students) perceptions on soft skills taught in the ITSS module;
  2. Determine perceptions on the extent of generic skills developed at the polytechnics (soft skills competency); and
  3. Investigate the extent students are able to transfer and apply the skills learned while undergoing their industrial training.

Methodology

The study looks into the students’ perceptions in relation to the applications of soft skills during industrial training and their awareness on the importance of soft skills. Respondents from both groups consisted of students who have undergone the ITSS module. The first group is composed of students with soft skills and have undergone training but without industrial or real work experience and the second group consisted of students trained using the ITSS module and have gone through industrial training in various organizations at the northern region of Peninsular Malaysia (Kedah, Perlis and Penang). The participants come from four polytechnics in the same region and are studying engineering, commerce, hospitality and information technology (IT). The sample size is calculated from the total population of each discipline base on a model by Krejcie and Morgan (1970). The soft skills elements studied are mainly based on the elements used in the ITSS module apart from the literature. Respondents were asked to respond to questions using Likert scale with six response options; values 1 to 6 are assigned to the responses from important and not important, and incompetent to competent, respectively.

Results and Findings

Descriptive statistics have been employed to analyze the respondents’ demographic data such as institutions, academic background, industrial sector for industrial training and gender. The target of getting 350 respondents has been achieved with a total of 353 preindustrial training respondents out of 400 questionnaires distributed for each group, or an 88.25% response rate. Meanwhile there are 359 (89.75%) of the post-industrial training respondents of the survey. It should be noted that this response rate is well within the generally accepted range of responses to surveys. Lack of time, this is due to the re-registration process, identified respondent has left the institution, too busy, lack of interest, and unawareness are some of the identified reasons for lack of respondents from the post-industrial training students. Table 1 shows respondents’ profile such as institutions, academic background, gender and industrial sector for industrial training.

Table 1: Demographic Profile of Respondents

To address students’ perceptions on the importance and soft skills application, students’ mean scores of the importance and competency are ranked and compared. The comparison demonstrates students’ knowledge and awareness of soft skills as well as their self-perceived level of soft skills applied. The ranking is hoped to assist in identifying skills elements most required according to respondents’ perspective. The result is presented as follows:

The Perceptions on the Importance and Perceived Competency Level of Identified Soft Skills

The majority of the students seem positive about the importance of soft skills (Table 2). The highly rated mean indicate overall students’ attentiveness on the importance of soft skills. Of the eight skills ranked by importance, two skills scored mean less than five. The teamwork skills are highly rated, report writing/decision making and leadership are not highly ranked and yields relatively low score by the pre-and postindustrial training (M = 4.95 and 5.02), respectively.

Table 2: Students’ Perception on the Importance of Identified Soft Skills Elements (n = 353: 359)

1. Numbers in bracket denote ranking order
2. Likert-type scale for each category under degree of importance: 1= Not Important; 6 = Important

The independent sample t-test is then used to determine if there is a statistically significant difference between the perceptions of the importance of soft skills by the pre-and post-industrial training students. The analysis shows that there is a mixed view in the perceptions of both groups. Five of the items: decision making, teamwork, time management, communication and report writing skills registered a significance value of p<.05, (Appendix 1). This indicates that the disparities in perceptions amongst groups are noteworthy for certain skills only, therefore would imply that interventions must be pursued in order to bridge this gap.

There are also some changes in ranking order between groups noted in the above results. The importance of teamwork as a soft skill element remains to be the priority, indicating that this skill is required regardless of situation or background. The changes in ranking order indicate priority given to those skills particularly by students with real experience. The gaps and changes in ranking determine soft skills that need more emphasis in teaching and learning in the future. Notwithstanding, these differences can be bases for future improvement of the module.

As for perceived level of competence (Table 3), the pre-industrial training students felt less confident in performing those skills with five of eight skills elements scoring less than five except for teamwork (M=5.07), time management (M=5.03) and learning and interpersonal skills (M=5.00). The least competent is decision making skills (M=4.91). Interestingly, the post-industrial training students also perceived teamwork (M=5.23) as the most competent skills. This is followed by time management (M=5.18) and communication skills (M=5.09). The least competent skills are in problem solving and leadership (M=4.99). Generally, the post-industrial training perceived themselves as more competent than the pre-industrial training group. This can be observed from the mean difference between the groups. The biggest gap is in teamwork and decision making and the smallest is problem solving skills.


1The independent-sample t–test is applicable when comparing mean scores of two different groups of people or conditions (Pallant, 2007).

Table 3: Students’ Perceived Level of Soft Skills Competency of Identified Soft Skills Elements (n = 353: 359)

1. Number in bracket denote ranking order
2. Likert-type scale for each category under degree of competence: 1= Not Competent; 6 = Competent

Given that the difference is small, the similar approach was conducted to study the significance of dissimilarities between pre and post-industrial training students. The independent sample t-test stated that there are statistically significant difference between the perceived levels of competency of both groups for decision making, teamwork, time management and report writing skills. The remaining four skills have not shown any significant differences (Appendix 2). These suggests that students have shown positive improvement in perceptions for skills like decision making, teamwork, time management and report writing skills after undergoing industrial training, conversely this does not occur in learning and interpersonal, communication, problem solving and leadership skills.

Overall, the result on the importance and competency implied that there is no definite pattern in students’ perceptions of soft skills though they showed positive improvement. As stated above, the post-industrial students’ mean scores are higher than the pre-industrial training students in all skills elements studied which indicated the improvement on their perceptions. Thus, it can be concluded that, students have mixed perceptions about industrial training in instilling the awareness of soft skills to polytechnic students. However, the improvement in soft skills and gaps identified between the pre and post-industrial training are very valuable input for future progress of the module.

The Relationship between Perceptions on the Importance of Soft Skills and Perceived Competency of Soft Skills

One of the definitions used in describing competency is “the ability and willingness to perform a task” by Brown (1993) and the purpose of competencies is to show the relationship between perceived performance, anticipated future performance and expected performance (Antonacopoulou & FitzGerald, 1996). Thus, in order to investigate the perceived performance of soft skills in this study, students’ perceived level of competency is explored.

As we can observed above, it is noted that some of the most significantly rated soft skills elements were also the most competent skills, similar to several studies (Ferreira & Santoso, 2008; Ong, et al., 2003). To assess whether or not there is relationship between the perceptions on the importance and the self- perceived level of soft skills competency by both groups, Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient was utilized. The analyzed result shows that there is a strong relationship between respondents’ perception on the importance and self-perceived level of soft skills competency (r = .707 to .800, n = 837, p < .01), this indicates that the higher students think that soft skill is important, the more they anticipate competence (Appendix 3). Therefore, it is concluded here that the positive perception on the importance of soft skills reflects on positive perceived level of soft skills competency.

In summary, respondents generally are having positive perceptions on soft skills, both on the importance and competency. Although the gaps identified from the perceptions of importance and competency for both groups is small, some skills are significant and notable for future improvement. It is also noted that students tended to rate the importance of soft skills more highly than their own ability in those skills, similar to many studies (Azam & Brauchle, 2003; Feast, 2001; Knemeyer & Murphy, 2002; Mey, 2003; Nabi & Bagley, 1999; Saunders & Zuzel, 2010; Singh & Singh, 2008).

Conclusions and Recommendations

Overall it can be seen that there are no outstanding outcome from studentrespondents. The ITSS module was not effectively segregated or filtered to provide distinct trends by the pre-and post-industrial students. Most students perceive the majority of the skills to be of paramount important and appear to perceive that they have mastered most of the components of the soft skills tested. Teamwork and time management skills are always at the top rank both in terms of importance and competence regardless of respondents’ background. The least priority skills are report writing and leadership skills. Another notable result is the communication skills. The communication skills scored relatively lower although these skills are well recognized as the most highly required skills by employers. This should be a serious concern to all parties such that appropriate strategies should be taken immediately to inculcate this skill.

For instance, the overall results imply that these are skills which the academe should take into consideration in the teaching and learning in relation to the improvement in the module from the students’ perspective. Students are aware of soft skills and they basically realize the importance of soft skills in achieving their desired level of competence. The small differences between perceptions on importance of soft skills and self-perceived soft skills competency seem and might not be noteworthy but the values suggest that some of these skills are to be prioritized. Moreover, students’ responses should not be the only deciding factor in any future changes if any, but it can be a valuable input to ITSS module evaluation as well as the teaching and learning. The importance and competence identified in each criterion can be consideration points in deciding whether any alterations is needed, emphasized, added or subtracted to curriculum elements.

2 A perfect correlation of 1 or -1 indicates that the value of one variable can be determined exactly by knowing the value on the other variable. A correlation of 0 indicates no relationship between the two variables. Negative sign in front of the correlation means there is negative correlation between the two variables (high scores on one are associated with low scores on the other). Strength of relationship:
Small: r = .10 to .29
Medium r = .30 to .49
Large r = .50 to 1.0

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Appendix 1: The Pre- and Post-Industrial Training Independent Sample T-test on the Importance of Soft Skills

Appendix 2: The Pre- and Post-Industrial Training Independent Sample T-test on Soft Skills Competency

Appendix 3: Independent Samples Test

Appendix 4: Pearson Product-moment Correlation Coefficient between the Importance and Competency Level of Soft Skills Elements (1) Pre-Industrial Training Students

(2) The Post-Industrial Training

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