The most overlooked skill respiratory students must have to survive school & land a job!

picture of helicopter used to transport respiratory therapist patients
Fortunately, you don't need to fly a helicopter!

The following is a written transcript of our inaugural podcast: Hi there. It’s your old respiratory care buddy, Chuck Mulholland. I’m an assistant professor and the director of clinical education for the respiratory care program Rhodes State College in Lima, Ohio. So what really prompted me to submit this article now audio recording about soft skills was I saw an ARCC member e-mail I received I think it was last week that was on this topic of soft skills and whether they are important or not. And one of the contributors to that article was a supervisor of mine many, many years ago when I was a young respiratory therapist, lad, basically right out of college. Jonathan Rosen, an interesting read to kind of pick his brain and look at what he thought were important soft skills, what he’s looking for in potential employees and as well as current staff and what role he thought that soft skills played in life as a respiratory therapist. So got me thinking more about that topic. And in my role and dealing with students in the respiratory care program here, I really thought a lot about soft skills and the role they play. And I would say that is a hugely important topic. When you’re preparing for your board exams and studying hard, you’re worried about memorizing equations and learning how to do things and the technical skills and hands on. It’s all very important and obviously the knowledge base is very important, but I don’t think those mean much at all. If you don’t complete the package with having a strong set of soft skills, so it’s kind of a gray area.

 

So I thought the first thing to do would maybe be to start with attempting to define what soft skills really are. And that’s pretty much what the AARC article that I referred to at the beginning of this recording did the same thing. They start with the definition of it. I think what soft skills are is what a lot of people would refer to as people skills. So there’s some buzz words associated with what we’re talking about. So we’re talking about communication skills. Can you can communicate effectively with other people? Teamwork? You know, in this case, we’re talking about respiratory therapy students. Can the student get along with other people, with other staff therapists, work with other allied health professionals, nurses, doctors, that kind of thing? The attitude that the student has, attendance and punctuality are very important. Buzz words that are thrown around a lot when we talk about soft skills. Adaptability? Can you react to change and react accordingly and a sense of responsibility when you tell a student to do something? Do you trust that they will follow through and do it? Self-confidence is another term that’s kind of thrown in here with these soft skill traits. How a student reacts to constructive criticism, I think is often a part of a lot of evaluation tools for soft skills. So but I think, at least in my opinion, and this would be my opinion because it’s me.

 

The best way to summarize soft skills is I like to sit back and ask myself when I’m evaluating a student, whether it’s in lecture, lab or clinicals, I ask one simple question; is the student a jerk? I think that might be probably somewhat harsh and maybe a little simplistic in the way it’s posed. But I think it really gets to the heart of the matter in regards to soft skills. So when I sit back and ask myself is a student, a jerk, if the answer to my jerk question is a resounding no, usually it means that student has very strong, if not outstanding, soft skills. So in other words, the student does get along well with others. They respect their instructors. They, you know, listen to advice.

 

They get along with other students. There is no drama and clinicals, no drama in lecture labs, no clicks are being formed and and things like that, which sometimes happens. People that are not jerks are usually pretty good communicators. So they can speak clearly. They get to the point and part of communication is being a great listener as well. And in my opinion, if you’re not a jerk, you are probably a good listener and you’re probably a strong communicator. Students that are not jerks simply show up on time and have great attendance. I mean, that’s as simple as it gets. Do you show up on time? Can we trust you to follow directions and get to the place on time, especially in clinicals when students are driving all around the countryside to get to hospitals? And they may have different start times? I think that’s important. Can they adjust? Can they show up on time? And not only do they show up on time, do they get there with a great attitude? Are they prepared for the day? That’s the kind of things we’re looking at.

 

So I think the biggest thing that maybe sets there, separates this jerk from being not a jerk is the consistency of all this.

 

I mean, it’s one thing if they can act like a non jerk and be a good person when they’re doing something they like, or maybe it’s a clinical rotation they especially looked forward to. But I think what sets people with great soft skills apart is they can have that great attitude, be open minded and be prepared across all settings. So they get to lecture on time. They’re taking notes. They’re listening. They’re paying attention. They get to clinicals on time. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a home care rotation or an ICU rotation or a new neonatal pediatric rotation, even if it’s rotation that maybe they’re not really comfortable with or pretty nervous about. They still show up and are there to learn and do a great job. And again, so I’m looking for that consistency and I think employers are looking for that as well. So, again, these people have great attitudes and that consistency is a big piece of this. They take care of business. They are just great to be around. They get it. They are the total package. They are the bomb. They are cool. They are Neato. Whatever words or terms, you want to use to describe it I think we all can agree when we see people with great soft skills.

 

You just like to be around them. They just seem to get it. And you know, they’re going to be successful. On the other hand, if get through to that jerk question as a strong yes, they are a jerk, then it’s very likely that that student has multiple defects or at least one defect or deficit in one of those soft skill traits. So it could be they got chronic jerkitis and they were a jerk from the beginning and you kind of saw red flags at the beginning or kind of like, you know, it’s a chronic condition like COPD or they can even have acute exacerbations, just like people with COPD can have an acute exacerbation of their COPD. Chronic jerks can have an acute exacerbation of their Jerkitis and just do something that really jumps out and makes you stop and wonder what were their heads at. So again, these jerks I hate to be crude, but that’s kind of what I label them asThey’re just students that struggle consistently. Again, if they’re chronic problems from day one and you see red flags early, sometimes they surprise you, though, and students that in my experience I never have a problem with. Can I work at a two year associates degree program? So I’ve had students that are great for the first year of clinics and class lectures.

 

Then something happens when they get to their second year that makes them kind of become a jerk. So it’s a kind of acute flare up out of nowhere. I didn’t think there were a jerk to begin with but something changed and made them act out, at some point in their second year. So some kind of characteristics or things that you look for that would make you describe someone as a jerk as they simply never listen. They don’t listen to other students. They don’t listen to instructors, nurses, other allied health professionals in the clinical setting. They might come across as know it alls or maybe they’re lops and they’re just completely oblivious and just don’t realize how terrible their listening skills are.

 

They rarely, if ever, follow any advice or any constructive criticism. And a lot of times in my experience, they get very defensive with constructive criticism, no matter how professionally it was laid out to them. Once they get the constructive criticism, they just get so defensive. They can’t they don’t seem to hear the message. They just get so offended when they realize they’re not perfect. So because of that, they don’t change their behaviors and they keep repeating the bad things that they maybe got into trouble to begin with. And so that’s a problem. And you’ve probably heard some people say, well, that’s the definition of insanity if you keep doing the same behavior over and over, expecting a different result. I don’t know if I would take it that far and say they’re insane as well as being a jerk. It’s possible. But sometimes these people just cannot be helped. You try to counsel them, try to identify areas that they are weak on, and you need to alert them to that to get them to improve their behavior and maybe make some positive changes. And sometimes people just don’t. Jerks struggle with communication, kind of like me when I keep saying um during this lecture, that’s a bad habit I have. I apologize. And even not just verbal communication. I think even nonverbal communication is something that people that struggle with soft skills or if you want to call me a jerk, usually have really poor verbal communication. So and you and you know it when you see it. They come into clinicals, they’re dragging their you know, besides being maybe five or 10 minutes late.

 

They just send out signals that they clearly do not want to be there. They’re just dragging. They looked like they rolled right out of bed. Their scrubs are all wrinkled. Maybe their hair’s a mess. They’re in dire need a coffee because they’re still half awake. And I’ve had some students that even make comments like I really don’t want to be here today or I’m not looking forward to this rotation. And, you know, that’s just such a bad first impression to make. And sometimes it’s hard to believe that people say and do those things and don’t think there’s gonna be consequences for it. But they find out the hard way. So people that are have poor soft skills are, you know, these jerks. They just don’t get along with other people. They often butt heads with other students. I’ve seen that a lot. They but heads with instructors, instructors that have never had problems with students before. All of a sudden are finding themselves in shouting matches with some of these jerk students. So, you know, based on my experience, it’s probably not a problem with the instructor because they’ve been instructor for me for two or three years and I’ve never had issues with students. Now, all of a sudden, these problems flare up. It really kind of points to the student as the one with the weak soft skills that are probably in play here. People with weak soft skills are just not in the team work at all.

 

It’s always me, me, me. I, I, I. When I grew up in high school, I played football, basketball, baseball. So I didn’t have a choice. I was really into teamwork pretty much my whole life. So it’s hard for me to appreciate and understand people that come to me and your students. And you can just tell that they weren’t from that background. It’s hard. I don’t understand. I’m not saying you have to play sports when you grew up. I think it’s a great idea. But it’s just you can tell some people are just spoiled brats and they’re just not used to working with other people, cannot appreciate diversity, cannot appreciate other people’s ideas. And they’re just very shut down and not into the teamwork aspect at all. And as you know or I hope you know, that’s not going to get you far in the health care field. It’s all about teamwork. You’re constantly working with patients and their families to get better results for the patient, constantly working with nurses, other allied health professionals, obviously doctors and physicians. We all got to be on the same page and working for common goals here. And it’s clear pretty quickly when someone’s not into the whole teamwork thing. Terrible attitudes. Again, I think that’s one that’s. It’s such a gray area because it’s something that everybody knows that when they see it. But it’s kind of hard to describe to people. You just get a very bad vibe from a student that’s a jerk or has bad soft skills or even, you know, even someone that’s not a student.

 

You guys have all probably had someone on your life that they just have a terrible attitude about everything. Very pessimistic, very set in their ways, just don’t seem to be happy. And sometimes you get to the point where, I mean, I’ve had to do this with students, you know, put them in my office and talk to them, say, you know, the impression I’m getting from you is you really don’t want to be here. You know, why are you still coming? Why did you get into the program in the first place? And what’s changed from since then? Because clearly, you know, a lot of students start out with great intent. I want to be a respiratory therapis. This field looks so cool. I want to play with ventilators. I want to intubate people like they do on Grey’s Anatomy or whatever show they’re watching. And sometimes they get into it and then they realize that it’s maybe not quite what I thought it was. And instead of just admitting it to themselves and maybe dropping out and quitting or going for another major, they keep trying to get through it. So maybe you should give them credit for perseverance, but not when it’s with a terrible attitude and are making lives miserable for everybody. So, again, constantly complaining is another sign of someone with weak soft skills, and it’s just not a fun person to be around. So just the opposite. Those non jerk people that have great soft skills.

 

So these jerk people with terrible soft skills again have terrible attitudes, constantly complain frequently late or absent with increasingly bizarre excuses. Students can get very creative with those just really they don’t have a sense of responsibility. Nothing is ever their fault. They they just don’t get it. And I think that’s the simplest way to describe people without soft skills. And you can’t believe they don’t understand how they’re coming across to other people, but they just don’t. So you try to counsel them. You try to talk to them and let them know of their weaknesses, but they just don’t make changes. I mean, because they’re jerks.

 

So I meant to ask these questions at the beginning and then my type paper I did and I kind of forgot to mention these when I recorded this audio recording, but one of the first questions I pose at the beginning is, well, OK. Now that we know about soft skills, do we think they’re important? And you know, since this is a family podcast, I will stick to p.g language and say, heck, yes, they are very important. I would almost venture to say that in some supervisors and managers opinion soft skills might be just as if not more important than your psychomotor skills. In other words, your hands on ability. Can you do the job and even your cognitive skills, your reasoning and logic ability. Do you remember what you’re doing? Why it’s important how to do it? I mean, you’ve got to have the total package here.

 

And again, soft skills is something we try to really hit our students in our program kind of over the head with this soft skill stuff and how important it is. But we still have students who struggle with. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. I find myself sometimes banging my head against a wall saying, what else can I do to make the students realize how important this stuff is, especially those that just don’t seem to get it.

 

And we have a kind of a process in our program, where it’s like maybe sort of like baseball analogy. It’s three strikes and you might be out kind of policy when we have people that struggle with this and you get a student and a first strike as a verbal warning saying, hey, here’s something you need to fix. You know, someone’s identified you with having this deficiency. You’re chronically late. You’re tardy, you’re butting heads a lot. You get very defensive when people are talking to you and telling you what you could improve on. And we take it from there. Now, if they don’t improve that or maybe some other psycho, I mean, some other soft skill trade becomes a problem, then we’ll go to step two words. OK, now it’s a written warning and we’ve got to sit down with the student, kind of counsel them and come up with a plan for them. This is what you need to do to fix some of this stuff. I can help you with some of this stuff. You’re going to have to do on your own. But we got to come up with a plan now that we know there is a problem and we gave you a chance to fix it back in step 1 and you didn’t. Step three is OK. Things are getting worse instead of better. And you may or may not be out of the program. I’ve had students of this stop multiple times. Sometimes that comes to the point where we have to remove them because they’re just so unprofessional and have such terrible soft skills.

 

They might be smart and they might know their stuff, but they just can’t put it together because of the attendance, the tardiness, the bad attitudes, whatever that’s becoming such a problem. So it’s not a fun thing to tell someone, hey, it looks like you’re getting a passing grade because you are passing tests and quizzes, but all these other things are so bad that it’s making you unsuccessful. And we can’t ignore that because you’re not hirable. People with terrible soft skills are not hirable. And we want our students to enter the profession and having a chance at getting a job. So we owe it to them to tell them, you’ve got these issues and we’ve identified it. Let’s try to fix them together. But sometimes it doesn’t happen. And so, yeah, I’d say soft skills are extremely important. Another question I wanted to propose at the beginning of this and kind of slipped my mind is can soft skills be learned or improve? In my experience, the definitive answer to that question is maybe. I in my experience, if we catch soft skills that are weak on our students early on in the game and identify them and the student actually is open minded and appreciates the feedback and does make active efforts to improve things. I’d say yes, I’ve seen big success stories. I’ve had students have struggled mightily with their soft skills and with some, you know, effective and timely feedback and a willingness to change.

 

They become great. You know, a lot of times it’s poor communication skills. And I admit I was a student in that boat. I believe it or not, I used to be a pretty shy, quiet, introverted person, very intimidated by nurses and doctors. When I first started clinicals and I was very book smart. I knew the answers to everything, got great grades. But when it came to clinicals, I was pretty hesitant tend to speak up. And other students in my clinical group would usually jump on and be the first to volunteer to answer questions or first to jump in and do a procedure. So I learned right away I got to come out of my shell a little bit more, because what it comes across to instructors is that guy is really quiet over there, kind of always shy to say anything. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t like being here. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s got a lack of confidence. It could be anything. But sometimes instructors don’t know how to take that. And I’ve had several students that are great students, very book smart. But the big problem is their communication skills at the beginning are pretty weak. So, yeah, I think they can definitely be improved as far as your soft skills. Again, communication is the biggest one I’ve seen. I’ve have seen some students kind of develop better attitudes when once they get called out and said, you know, we flat out tell them you’ve got to change your attitude.

 

You know, people don’t like being around you. It’s obvious you don’t like this certain hospital or the certain instructor, and it’s starting to become a problem. You know, sometimes students don’t know or not are aware of how they’re coming across to other people. So once you identify it, it’s pretty amazing how, you know, if they keep an open mind, they’re actually pretty appreciate a appreciative of that. And they might say, you know what? No one’s ever told me that. Or sometimes I’ve had them say, you know, you’re not the first person to tell me that I struggle to get along with people. I have a bad attitude. I do complain a lot. And it’s something that’s been a problem before. Obviously, it’s happened again. So I’m going to try to fix it. And to their credit. Sometimes they do. So it’s very rewarding for me is as an instructor, faculty member to see that because we want students to grow and learn and be hireable and go on to big rewarding careers and make serious bank. On the other hand, I’ve seen students just not change. I mean, given multiple opportunities and I will admit I’m probably more flexible than I should be. I think it’s a product of having four daughters and raising them and trying to give them second, third chances and knowing, OK, they’re gonna make mistakes. But you can only help people so much. And again, because I work on Associates Degree Program, we have different types of students.

 

We have older students. Students are older than me. I’m forty nine years old. And I’ve had students that are older than me coming back and going into respiratory therapy as a second or third career. And sometimes, unfortunately, by the time they get to that age, they kind of are who they are. And we can tell them that there is problems. But sometimes people just don’t change. They are who they are because they’re fully functioning adults by the time they get to us. So. You know, it’s up to the Student, sometimes they change. Sometimes they don’t and they just repeatedly get in trouble and then it becomes a problem and makes them unsuccessful. So it’s a very hard conversation to have with the students and tell them, you know, I know you’re working hard. I see you study and I don’t have a problem with you personally. I think you’re a great person. I get along with you great. But you’re constantly late. You’re constantly butting heads with, you know, a clinical instructor or you don’t like constructive criticism. We’re all just trying to help you, but we’re not getting through. We’ve had some students that said it’s more of an anxiety issue. They do fine and lab and lecture. But when they’re dealing with real life situations in clinicals, things just fall apart. And obviously, that’s not going to help you be a good respiratory therapist if you just get so nervous that you can’t function or and or you’re going to be prone to making major mistakes.

 

on your patient. Obviously, that’s not a good situation. So it’s not just adults. I’ve had young students like right out of high school sometimes be a little reluctant to change, but they’re oftentimes a little more impressionable and sometimes we can help them more so than some of the older students I’ve got, at least in my experience. So I think as I get older, I find myself increasingly becoming the grumpy old man that says, hey, get off my lawn and things like kids these days. And, you know, mumbling about this younger generation just doesn’t seem to get it. But I think there is a generational kind of component to this. I just see a lot of younger students kind of come to our program. And I know I’m not the only one because I’ve talked to department directors, other directors of clinical education and other faculty members at other colleges. And it just does seem to be that younger generation of students that we get are just different than what I was as a student. They want to know things right away. You know, that sense, I think it’s a product of being raised in the environment they are with computers and the answers are literally being right at their fingertips. So again, they’ve done big studies on Gen X versus millennials versus baby boomers. And you know how there are no huge differences in our generation. And I think that’s at play here.

 

I don’t think that completely explains why there is a disconnect. Sometimes I have with my younger students, but I think it is a factor that we can’t ignore. So I’ve tried to change my approach in an effort to communicate better with younger students because as I get older, I think there is a bigger gap because they don’t share the same experiences and life things that I did growing up. Again, I don’t think that’s the only reason. I think that’s something you’ve got to keep in the back. Your mind. Some of these younger people, just communication skills, people skills, they’re not great at them because they’re staring at their phones all the time. And that’s just kind of the way they’ve been socialized. So again, I’ve had students that are extremely book smart and get it. And I admit they’re better on computers and technology than I am and have helped me troubleshoot things during my lectures that it’s kind of embarrassing that I don’t know how to fix and here this person is half my age that can jump up and fix it. That’s great. But again, that student also can’t communicate well, was raised thinking they should get a trophy every time they show up. And that’s not the way I was raised. I mean, we only got trophies, trophies if we won. So kind of old school mentality again through my experience in sports. That was my experience. You know, if you didn’t win, you don’t get trophies.

 

You might. So I might tell you. Good job. But there was never here’s a trophy just for showing up. And I think that’s part of the mindset of students, sometimes, especially young ones from the millennials and people younger than me sometimes that I butt heads with and just can’t understand sometimes. So question number three is, can you be a successful respiratory therapist but have terrible soft skills? I think the best answer that is not for long. You can have the skills as far as Hands-On and Psychomotor. You can have the cognitive knowledge and be extremely smart and pass your board exams on your first attempt. And I hope you do. But if you have weak soft skills, you’re really going to struggle to land and or keep a job. And I’ve seen it happen enough with former students of mine that it’s a trend and we see it. That’s why we try to identify with our students early on, get them to realize there are some things they can improve on. And it’s a tough conversation I have sometimes with students, but it’s necessary.

 

So when people have those big flaws with their soft skills, it’s just you might be able to keep it hidden for a while. But usually by the time you’re done with your probationary period, if you do actually get hired and actually did well enough in your interview to fool people into thinking you’re not a jerk, eventually that’s going to come out. And I’ve seen people. Just you probably know from not necessarily just respiratory therapy, but those people that just can’t keep a job. They go from job to job. And as you get to know them, you kind of start to see why, you know, they don’t get along with other people. They’re all you know, they’re tardy, they’re late. They have terrible attendance. They don’t communicate well. Whatever it might be, you know, when you see it. So, yeah, I think these skills are extremely important. And hopefully you understand after this lecture how important they are. So the kind of big take home point of this big rambling on and on podcast thing I’m trying to do here is don’t be a jerk. And that’s a simple thing to say. But for some people, it’s a hard thing to actually do. Treat others like you’d like to be treated. Show up on time. Act like you want to be there, study and do all the book work.

 

Yeah. But put it together with your soft skills. We tell our students all the time. Clinicals are basically a two year job interview on our program. Whether you realize it or not, people are watching you all the time. Supervisors, other staff, therapists, nurses, doctors. And they will give us feedback either through rumors or word of mouth or people e-mailing me or call me directly and saying, hey, we had this student today and they didn’t do well. And, you know, you might say that they’re Narcing you out or being a rat or whatever. But, you know, they care about the profession and they are trying to identify problems that you can get better with if you are a person with a bad soft skills. And that’s my job to make sure the students are aware of that and to try to help them as much as I can. So when you’re preparing for your board exams and studying hard, you know, all that stuff’s extremely important. But don’t forget to think about your soft skills before you go for the job interview or after you get the job. You know what kind of co-worker do you want to be? You’ll do some self-reflection and think about your own soft skills or other things that you’re really good at.

 

Are there things that you’re weak on and could probably work on? Can you be a better team player? You know, none of us are perfect. And I hope you don’t think I’m claiming to be. You can ask my wife i’m a terrible communicator. And she reminds me that pretty much daily. But I know it’s a weakness of mine. I try to get better at it. I don’t do a great job of that, but I know it’s a weakness of mine. So at least I’m aware of that. So try to be self-aware. Don’t forget, as you’re studying and doing all those things, that the soft skills are something you need to improve on, just like you do for your hands on skills and your knowledge base.