No question about it, “soft skills” have a PR problem.
“Calling them ‘soft’ sounds derogatory. It sounds weak,” observes Jeremy Auger, co-founder and strategy chief at digital-learning powerhouse D2L, purveyor of training software to Fidelity, Accenture, and many others. “I prefer to call them durable skills. Or human skills.”
“Durable” indeed. Auger points to research showing that hard skills, particularly in IT, now become obsolete after an average of just 18 months. A knack for teamwork, or storytelling, or empathy with customers, by contrast, never wears out. You can take it with you no matter how many times you change jobs and, so far at least, artificial intelligence can’t one-up you.
Moreover, durable-slash-human skills are in huge demand just about everywhere. Consider: LinkedIn recently surveyed 4,000 U.S. managers and executives and found “soft” skills are now their No. 1 training priority. Reports from the National Association of Colleges and Employers have been advising new grads for the past few years that, while STEM majors and high GPAs are swell, what hiring managers really want is more candidates who can solve problems and work well with teammates.
So it comes as no big surprise that, when McDonald’s commissioned a nationwide poll last May of 6,247 adults, 88% said the chance to cultivate human skills is “important” or “very important,” especially for young people who are new to the workforce. Notably, nearly half (46%) of the 18- to 24-year-olds said that these skills are lacking among their own Gen Z age group. The same survey also asked McDonald’s workers to name the fields where they eventually hope to build their careers. The top five answers: arts and entertainment, entrepreneurship, health care, food service, and technology.
The research capped off five years of effort to design a massive internal training effort, aimed in large part at helping McDonalds’ 850,000 U.S. employees to up their game in areas like teamwork, customer service, and what the company calls “responsibility” (meaning, for instance, why it’s important to be dependable and show up on time).
Dubbed “Where You Want to Be,” the new training campaign kicks off in December. One intriguing feature: Any employee can apply for the chance to spend time shadowing a prominent person, or what McDonald’s calls an “influencer,” in the field that interests them most. One of these, in health care, is Meena Singh, M.D., a dermatologist trained at Harvard Medical School and the Mayo Clinic. Another, in entrepreneurship, is James Altucher, a hedge fund manager, venture capitalist, and podcaster, who has founded or co-founded 20 startups.
The goal, says McDonald’s U.S. chief people officer Melissa Kersey, is to “show employees what day-to-day life is like, and what success looks like, in their chosen field. We’ve encouraged the influencers to talk about how they’ve learned their ‘soft’ skills, and how they apply them in their work.”
At the same time, a new set of career-planning and mentoring tools—designed in partnership with the nonprofit Council for Adult & Experiential Learning—will be available for free to all employees, in mobile-app form so that people can work on the training modules at their own pace, when their schedules allow. Partly because almost one in five (17%) employees enrolled in McDonalds’ “Archway to Opportunity” tuition-reimbursement program has asked for counseling to help them decide on a career path, everyone will also be able to consult professional advisers, again at no charge, who can lend a hand with long-term goals.
McDonald’s won’t say what it’s spending on the “Where You Want to Be” campaign, although it has reported publicly that tuition reimbursement has nearly tripled recently to about $150 million. Some 33,000 of the company’s workers have already participated in that, and Kersey says she hopes the new training will encourage more to sign up. She’s enough of a realist to concede that McDonald’s is a way station on the road to some other career for most of its workers—many of whom are, after all, still in their teens or in college.
“We’d love it, of course, if people come back after they finish school and do marketing, or analytics, or management for us,” Kersey says. “But either way, more training, especially in soft skills, makes them better employees for us in the short term.”
Noted, but even so, Kersey may get her wish. An overwhelming 94% of employees in the LinkedIn study said they’d be inclined to stick with an employer who helped them develop their careers. In the meantime, considering that McDonald’s has nearly a million employees in every part of North America, the company might just be training your next great hire.
Anne Fisher is a career expert and advice columnist who writes “Work It Out,” Fortune’s guide to working and living in the 21st century. Each week, she’ll answer your most challenging career questions. Have one? Ask her on Twitter or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.