Soft skills: What’s all the hype about?

BlogAug 4 2015

When it comes to getting a job and succeeding in the workplace, more and more employers are making assessments of what are often called “soft skills,” “life skills,” “employability skills,” or “social-emotional skills.”

The list goes on and on. More likely than not, you have heard these words and may wonder what the hype is all about.

Even though different sectors use different terminology, these terms all generally refer to the broad set of skills, competencies, behaviors, attitudes, and personal qualities that enable people to effectively navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals. These skills are separate from academic abilities such as reading and math, and technical skills such as typing or welding, and are typically not assessed by standard achievement tests, though they enhance a student’s ability to perform well on these tests and to do well in school.

In a recent Child Trends report, Key Soft Skills that Foster Youth Workforce Success, we explored the various conceptualizations of these skills from various disciplines and from across the globe to examine which skills have  the most support for enhancing youth workforce success. Despite differences in terminology, a substantial consensus emerges around which skills are considered most useful for youth workforce success:

  • Communication: the specific types of communication used in the workplace including oral, written, non-verbal, and listening skills;
  • Social skills: interpersonal skills including respecting others, using context- appropriate behavior, and resolving conflict;
  • Higher-order thinking skills: a composite of problem solving, critical thinking, and decision-making skills;
  • Positive self-concept: intrapersonal skill including self-confidence, self-efficacy, self-awareness and beliefs, as well as self-esteem and a sense of well-being and pride; and
  • Self-control: one’s ability to delay gratification, control impulses, direct and focus attention, manage emotions, and regulate behaviors.

In addition to being backed by research, intuition tells us that these skills are important in the workforce, whether you work in an office on the 50th floor of a skyscraper in New York City or in a sugar cane field in Brazil.

Communication skills are constantly used in the workforce. For example, office workers often send dozens of emails per day and the most efficient workers are those that send clear, concise messages to get their point across.

Social skills manifest any time an employee or potential employee interacts with others — from customers to CEOs. Any salesperson can read a prescribed pitch to make a sale, but a successful one is able to adapt his or her pitch to the individual client while treating every customer with respect.

Higher-order thinking skills, such as problem solving, critical thinking, and decision-making are put to use every day in the workforce much like a chef making a recipe substation when the market is out of that special ingredient.

A positive self-concept provides employees or entrepreneurs with confidence in their abilities. Young entrepreneurs need positive self-concepts in order to pitch their business ventures to banks and micro-lenders.

Self-control is invaluable in the world of work, because it helps workers around the world arrive for work on time and stay productive while they are there, no matter what the job.

Whatever you call them, it is clear that these skills are important. Just think of instances you know of when a young person was fired – was it because they lacked a technical skill or because they did not display what many feel are “basic” abilities such as showing up on time, or being respectful to coworkers? A growing evidence base shows that these qualities rival academic or technical skills in their ability to predict employment and earnings, among other workforce outcomes.

In addition to helping youth succeed at work around the world, they also have powerful relationships with other youth outcomes. Just this year, new research in the United States shows that social skills in kindergarten have been linked to educational success, a decreased likelihood of arrest, and even a smaller probability of needing public assistance in adulthood. It is critical for us to continue the discussion about soft skills, and recognize that, regardless of terminology used to describe them, they are a critical ingredient to ensuring youth are prepared for adulthood.