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In a Wall Street Journal survey of nearly 900 executives, 92% of respondents said soft skills were equally as or more important than technical skills. Nowhere is that truer than in global business. In a world characterized by constant change, soft skills are essential prerequisites for business success.

These skills – leadership, collaboration, and communication, among others – aren’t prerequisites like Economics 501. They’re not learned in the classroom. But they can be learned. So even if you’re an introvert, or you struggle working in teams, or you’re terrified of speaking in front of people, soft skills like leadership, collaboration, and communication can be learned – through firsthand experiences broadly known as ‘applied learning.’

For examples, Thunderbird has plenty. Thunderbird Consulting Laboratories offer for-credit, applied learning programs – such as TEM Lab, Executive TEM Lab, and Global Consulting Lab – that allow students to apply their classroom knowledge in real-time consulting projects around the globe. It’s like study abroad, but for grownups.

“In applied learning programs, students not only gain hands-on business experience, they absorb cultural understanding, which doesn’t come from a textbook.” – Click to tweet

Applied learning in action

In 2017, for example, a group of TEM Lab students traveled to Campulung, Romania, for a consulting role with manufacturing company Montana MG. They met with managers and employees, toured the plant, studied systems, learned about the equipment and software – all while struggling with a language barrier and a tight timetable for their work product.

They also absorbed as much of the local culture as possible during their five weeks. One of the Team Montana students, Nate Flake, describes the experience: “For me a big takeaway from this project was learning how the millennials see their own country … the younger generation wants to turn the system on its head and take the country in a new direction.

In other words, TEM Lab students not only gained hands-on business experience, they absorbed cultural understanding – and that’s a skill that doesn’t come from a textbook.

Read more about applied learning experiences in Romania and Thunderbird students’ takeaways.

Go ‘soft’ for a solid advantage

Thunderbird’s applied learning experiences are likely to reap rewards in the job market. When Forbes asked more than 100 top HR managers, recruiters, and CEOs what makes a candidate stand out, nearly all of them pointed to traditional soft skills like collaboration and communication – not surprising.

One surprise, however, was what the executives said about four less-mentioned soft skills: attention, curiosity, agility, and humility. Perhaps even more than collaboration and communication, applied learning fosters the development of those other kinds of soft skills. There’s hardly any experience more humbling than not being able to order your own lunch.

The reason soft skills are so valuable to employers is that more than any other type of learning or preparation, they prepare you to show up at a new job and quickly contribute value. So soft skills can give job candidates an edge over the competition. And once you snag that job, soft skills also add staying power, ensuring you aren’t left behind by the twists and turns of new technology or shifting labor demands.

Those twists and turns are well under way. A World Economic Forum report predicted that more than one-third of skills considered important in 2015 will change by 2020. For example, the Forum’s comparison chart has “creativity” jumping from No. 10 all the way to No. 3.

“Real-world experiences prepare you to show up at a new job and quickly contribute.” – Click to tweet

Don’t coast – compete!

Thanks to globalization and automation, the skills gap grows ever wider. Dennis Yang, former CEO of Udemy, says the divide between the skills employers need and the skills workers have is changing how companies compete.

“A company retains its competitive edge by hiring those most willing and able to learn new skills,” Yang writes in HuffPost. “These ‘great employees’ stay valuable contributors over the course of their career, even as their roles evolve to meet new market demands.” 

To stay competitive, you need to keep learning. Coasting with your current skills until retirement simply won’t work. If you’re uncertain about applied learning, ASU faculty associate Tamara Christensen, a consultant for Fortune 500 companies, offers this reassurance: “Adult learners and professionals thrive with a hands-on approach,” she says. “They want to practice new concepts so they can understand how to use something right away. The learning is more authentic to them when it’s experiential.”

“Adult learners and professionals thrive with a hands-on approach. Applied learning gives you a competitive edge.” – Click to tweet

Christensen teaches experiential programs in which participants learn the six dimensions of tension for teams and individuals and how to transform that tension into creative collaboration.

“I’m a big believer in people learning that way, with plenty of activities, stories and examples, self-diagnostics and discussion. It’s when we see those ‘Aha!’ moments where the light bulb goes on. These experiences help people feel what it’s like to work with someone different, someone they don’t know very well,” Christensen says.

“And that happens a lot in real life.”