Published in the March 28, 2014 Santa Maria Times.

In a previous column, I noted that students at Allan Hancock College are often nonplussed when asked to analyze a work of literature or an essay.

Writing a summary is not difficult for them, but writing an analysis appears to be a task they haven’t often been given prior to arriving in a college classroom.

Employers are making a similar discovery — people new to the workforce may have the technical skills they need, but they lack the ability to analyze a problem and find a solution. In short, they have not been taught to think critically.

Critical thinking is being able to evaluate arguments and information, solve problems creatively, identify mistakes or inconsistencies in reasoning, and to deduce possible consequences as a result of actions or ideas being put into practice — all essential talents for success in today’s working world.

“Critical thinking,” says Earl Murray Jr., an adjunct business professor at Hancock College, “is one’s ability to trouble-shoot, diagnose, assess, and evaluate different options when dealing with problems or issues that need solving.”

Just how important are critical thinking skills in today’s job market? Sheri Griffiths, a senior manager at a local employment agency, said, “Employers expect employees to attempt to solve problems independently, before approaching them. Come to me with a solution, not a problem is a mantra of many busy managers these days.”

But employers are finding their employees and potential employees lack the ability to analyze and solve complex problems.

“Employers frequently complain that beginning employees need additional cultivation of soft skills, including such intangibles as the ability to collaborate with others, communicate effectively, and think critically or independently,” said Luis Sanchez, Hancock’s vice president of academic affairs. “In fact, those employers often tell us these skills are more important than the technical skills employers often provide on the job.”

“Employers are more likely to select a candidate who has demonstrated an ability to think critically,” said Griffiths. “They may ask them behavioral interview questions to determine their ability such as, tell me about a time when you were faced with a problem, and you had to resolve it without your manager; or, tell me about a time when you had to come up with a creative solution to a customer’s challenge.”

What should job-seekers do?

“Candidates can set themselves apart by preparing for these scenario-based questions prior to interviews,” said Griffiths.

Murray said students can focus on critical thinking before graduation. “A student needs to learn critical thinking to advance his or her knowledge prevalent in education, college and work industry. Those who lack critical thinking skills could possibly lose out on employment opportunities and advancement.”

What else can be done? Sanchez thinks higher education needs to place more stress on analytical skills. “We need far more opportunities to share strategies for enhancing our students’ critical thinking skills, and better metrics for discerning different levels of critical thinking.”

In the lower grades, there needs to be less emphasis on standardized tests and more on creative, independent thought. More attention needs to be paid to learning how to think, rather than on what to think. As a retiring high school teacher wrote, “We have not been able to prepare them (students) for the kind of intellectual work that you (college instructors) have every right to expect of them.”

With businesses starting to feel the impact, a long-overdue shift in our educational policies may be just over the horizon.

Mark James Miller, President, Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College, CFT Local 6185, Santa Maria, CA