Soft skills are a combination of people skills, social skills, communication skills, character or personality traits, attitudes, career attributes, social intelligence and emotional intelligence quotients, among others, that enable people to navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals with complementing hard skills. The Collins English Dictionary defines the term "soft skills" as "desirable qualities for certain forms of employment that do not depend on acquired knowledge: they include common sense, the ability to deal with people, and a positive flexible attitude."
Soft skills is a composite expression, and each of the two words explains a defining aspect of the concept.
The word “skill” highlights the practical function. The term alone has a broad meaning, and describes a particular ability to complete tasks ranging from easier ones like “learning how to kick a ball” to harder ones like “learning how to be creative." In this specific instance, the word “skill” has to be interpreted as the ability to master hardly controlled actions.
The word “soft” is the opposite of “hard”, and implies “subjective, fuzzy, and unreliable”. Because of their subjectivity, soft skills are hardly assessed, and never fully mastered. In addition, the vagueness explains why soft skills are not always clearly understood by employers and employees.
Soft is not the only adjective used to describe this type of skills. Scientists coined the word “noncognitive for everything that was not, in their view, grounded in or directly derived from rational thought (which they labeled cognitive)”. This term describes negatively the fact that soft skills have an undefined acceptation, underlying how “cognition is well defined and well understood, while everything else exists in a dark zone around this patch of intellectual light”.
For this reason, the more formal word “thinking dispositions” is “now preferred by many education leaders”.
Since 1959, the U.S. Army has been investing a considerable amount of resources into technology-based development of training procedures. In 1968 the U.S. Army officially introduced a training doctrine known as "Systems Engineering of Training" covered in the document CON Reg 350-100-1.
PG Whitmore cited the CON Reg 350-100-1 definition: "job-related skills involving actions affecting primarily people and paper, e.g., inspecting troops, supervising office personnel, conducting studies, preparing maintenance reports, preparing efficiency reports, designing bridge structures."
In 1972, thanks to an US Army training manual, the formal usage of the term "soft skills" began. At the 1972 CONARC Soft Skills Conference, Dr. Whitmore presented a report aimed at figuring out how the term "soft skills" is understood in various CONARC schools. After designing and processing a questionnaire, experts formulated a new tentative definition: "Soft skills are important job-related skills that involve little or no interaction with machines and whose application on the job is quite generalized."
They further criticized the state of the concept then as vague with a remark "in other words, those job functions about which we know a good deal are hard skills and those about which we know very little are soft skills." Another immediate study by them also concluded in a negative tone.
Psychologist Nicholas Humphrey famously stated that social intelligence, rather than qualitative intelligence, defines humans. Many industries today give prominence to the soft skills of their employees.
Soft skills are a cluster of productive personality traits that characterize one's relationships in a milieu. These skills can include social graces, communication abilities, language skills, personal habits, cognitive or emotional empathy, time management, teamwork and leadership traits. A definition based on review literature explains soft skills as an umbrella term for skills under three key functional elements: people skills, social skills, and personal career attributes.
The importance of soft skills lies in the fact that they are not restricted to a specific field. These thinking dispositions consist of a group of abilities that can be used in every aspect of people’s lives, without any need to readapt them based on the situation. Their ductility helps “people to adapt and behave positively so that they can deal effectively with the challenges of their professional and everyday life”. Soft skills make people flexible in a world which keeps changing.
The interest in soft skills has increased over the course of the years. The more researches are conducted, the more people understand the relevance of this concept. The huge amount of fund companies and worldwide organizations are investing in the training and development of this field shows this interest. The European Commission launched the program Agenda for new skills and jobs in 2012 in order to train and explain to young adults this new set of skills.
Now, in the 21st century, soft skills are a major differentiator, a sine qua non for employability and success in life. The Nobel prize James Heckman claims that “soft skills predict success in life, that they casually produce that success, and that programs that enhance soft skills have an important place in an effective portfolio of public policies”. The significance employers give to the topic is shown by the fact that soft skills are now as important as GPA (once considered the most important factor in making decisions) in hiring a new worker.
The high request, and the broadly diffused confusion about the meaning and the training of soft skills represent two elements that can explain the lack of soft skills in the job market. Employers struggle to find leaders and worker able to keep up with the evolving job market. The problem is not limited to young people who are looking for a job, but also for actual employees. A public interest study conducted by McDonald’s in UK predicted over half a million people will be held back from job sectors by 2020 due to lack of soft skills.
Hard vs soft skills
“Hard skills include technical or administrative competence”. Soft skills are commonly used to “refer to the “emotional side” of human beings in opposition to the IQ (Intelligent Quotient) component related to hard skills”. Hard and soft skills are usually defined as similar concepts or complements. This fact demonstrates how these two different types of abilities are strictly related.
Hard skills were the only skills necessary for career employment and were generally quantifiable and measurable from an educational background, work experience or through interview. Success at work seemed to be related solely to the technical ability of completing tasks. For this reason, employer and companies used to hire new people based only on their objective competencies. This clarifies why nowadays people with good soft skills are in such shorter supply than workers with good hard skills.
The trend has changed in the last years. Hard skills still represent a fundamental aspect, but soft skills equaled them for importance. According to the leadership professor Robert Lavasseur, most of the researchers he interviewed in this field “rated soft skills higher than technical skills”. Studies by Stanford Research Institute and the Carnegie Mellon Foundation among Fortune 500 CEOs confirm this idea establishing that 75% of long term job success resulted from soft skills and only 25% from technical skills (Sinha, 2008). Another study found that 80% of achievements in career are determined by soft skills and only 20% by hard skills.
Measuring Soft Skills
Recent studies by the OECD have found that soft skills can be meaningfully measured within cultural and linguistic boundaries. Such measures include a combination of methods that include self-reported personality, behavioural surveys and objective psychological assessments. These measurements can be improved by collecting data from multiple sources across learning contexts such as the school environment, family context and the wider community and triangulating the data (OECD, 2015).
This is because surveys can be subject to bias and having multiple sources such as self, teacher, peer and parental reporting can provide unique perspectives on student’s skills as well as infer latent personality (John and De Fruyt, 2014). In addition, anchoring vignettes is another method that can be implemented to lessen biases and increase data quality as well as improve cross-cultural comparability of soft skill assessments (Kyllonen and Bertling, 2014).
Because of their rising importance, the need to teach soft skills has become a major concern for educators all over the world. Because soft skills are poorly defined, teaching them is more challenging, compared to classical skills. For this reason, the first step consists of understanding how to evaluate them, so that educators can track student progress.
As for teaching, evaluating soft skills is harder than technical skills. “Quizzes or exams cannot accurately measure interpersonal and leadership skills”. Group projects seem to be a good way to develop soft skills, but evaluating them still represent an hard obstacle. Researchers consider peer evaluation a good compromise between working in groups and an objective evaluation. The researches conducted on this topic reported both positive and negative results. The study carried out by professor Zhang of Georgia Southern University, although with few participants, “is an initial step in designing and validating a peer assessment scale”.
“The development of soft skills is much more difficult than the development of hard skills because it requires actively interacting with others on an ongoing basis and being willing to accept behavioral feedback”. While hard skills can be learned studying from a book or from individual training, soft skills needs a combination of environment and other people to be mastered. For this reason, learning doesn’t depend solely on the person, but it is influenced by different factors that make the education harder and unpredictable.
Training transfer, “defined as the extent to which what is learned in training is applied on the job and enhances job-related performance”, is another reason why the education of soft skills is hard. “Prior research and anecdotal evidence has emphasized that soft-skills training is significantly less likely to transfer from training to job than hard-skills training”. This forces companies and organizations to invest more money and time in training, and not all are willing to do it.
The OECD ‘Future of Education and Skills 2030’ report released in 2019 highlighted the growing importance of soft skills in education due to trends such as globalisation and rapid advancements in technology and artificial intelligence, which demand changes of the labour market and the skills future workers require in order to succeed. The report states that, ‘to remain competitive, workers will need to acquire new skills continually, which requires flexibility, a positive attitude towards lifelong learning and curiosity’ (OECD, 2019).
Research has been conducted investigating the transfer of soft skills and knowledge through formats such as play (DeKorver, Choi and Town, 2017) as well as project-based learning (Lee and Tsai, 2004). Another key finding from the literature is that in order to maximise benefits of soft skills over the long-term, they should be focused on young children particularly from the age of 1 – 9 years old. Nobel prize winners Heckman and Kautz (2012) provided evidence of this in their analysis of the Perry Preschool Soft Skills program, where they found how personality traits can be changed in ways that produce beneficial life outcomes. The program involved teaching social skills to 3 and 4 year old children from low income black families with initial IQ scores below 85 at age 3. 128 children participated in the four year high-quality preschool education program which emphasised active learning. The children were involved in activities designed to develop their decision making and problem solving skills and that were planned, executed and reviewed by the children themselves with support from adults. Teachers also paid weekly 1.5 hour visits to each student’s home to involve the mother in the educational process and help implement the preschool curriculum at home.
This longitudinal study was evaluated using randomised controlled trials (RCT). It was found that the group which experienced the enrichment preschool program compared to the control group which didn’t participate had significantly more positive life outcomes than their peers by the age of 40. This included that 60% of the program group earned more per year (over USD $20, 000) as compared to the 40% that the non-program group. In addition, 77% of the program group graduated highschool whereas only 60% of the non-program group graduated. Other life outcomes included program school participants were less likely to get arrested, owned their own home and car and had fewer teenage pregnancies (Heckman and Kautz, 2012). Evidence from other studies are consistent with the findings from the Perry Preschool Program, such as data from Project STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio) carried out by Krueger and Whitmore (2001) and Project PATHS (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies) that teaches self-control, emotional awareness and social-problem skills aimed at elementary school children (Bierman et al., 2010). Both studies have found implementing soft skills education to small groups of children at a young age have led to significantly higher wages in early adulthood compared to their peers and other lifetime successes (Dee and West, 2011; Durlak et al., 2011).
The same OECD report emphasised the importance of metacognitive skills for lifelong learning. Metacognition amounts to thinking about one’s thinking. More specifically, it refers to the processes used to assess one’s understanding. It includes critical thinking, reflection, and awareness of oneself as a thinker and a learner (Chick, 2013). With increasing automation, purely cognitive or professional skills no longer suffice to navigate this VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) (Yeo, 2019, OECD 2015).
Future Labour Market
According to the OECD's Skills Outlook 2019 report, life-long learning or metacognition, is becoming more necessary for employment and for handling a future environment of increased uncertainty. The report states, ‘humans are likely to be able to handle uncertainty better than AI,’ as the latter is able to complete specific tasks efficiently and can respond effectively to some characteristics of uncertainty and complexity. However, if the context of the task and goals are ambiguous or mutable, the program often experiences a ‘breakdown’. In contrast, humans can respond more readily to uncertainty, volatility, complexity, and ambiguity ,through being adaptable learners and being able to readily adopt, develop, and discard their beliefs and their understanding of the world, when given a new context (OECD, 2019). Notwithstanding this, humans sometimes fail to do so productively and machines, in many cases, lack those capacities entirely (Laukkonen, Biddell and Gallagher, 2018).
The National Business Education Association deems soft skills as critical for being industrious in today’s workplace. For this reason, soft skills are increasingly sought out by employers in addition to standard qualifications. A shortage of soft skills makes people who have them incredibly valuable and desired to companies.
College students are becoming more aware of the importance of soft skills for their future job. A survey conducted by some professors showed how the majority of college students and graduates “rate highly their levels of soft skill competencies”. However, these students tend to overestimate their real capacities. Indeed, employers hiring college students “complain the new hires lack these soft skills or have overstated their level of competency”.
- Communication – oral speaking capability, written, presenting, listening, clear speech & writing.
- Courtesy – manners, etiquette, business etiquette, gracious, says please and thank you, respectful.
- Flexibility – adaptability, willing to change, lifelong learner, accepts new things, adjusts, teachable.
- Integrity – honest, ethical, high morals, has personal values, does what’s right.
- Interpersonal skills – nice, personable, sense of humor, friendly, nurturing, empathetic, has self-control, patient, sociability, warmth, social skills.
- Positive attitude – optimistic, enthusiastic, encouraging, happy, confident.
- Professionalism – businesslike, well-dressed, appearance, poised.
- Responsibility – accountable, reliable, gets the job done, resourceful, self-disciplined, wants to do well, conscientious, common sense.
- Teamwork – cooperative, gets along with others, agreeable, supportive, helpful, collaborative.
- Work ethic – hard working, willing to work, loyal, initiative, self-motivated, on time, good attendance.
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