Soft skills have received much attention from scholars and practitioners in recent years. In today’s competitive labor market, employers are no longer interested in individuals who possess only technical or domain-specific skills (known as hard skills) and lack other significant skills, particularly soft skills, namely communication skills, teamwork, adaptability, and learning skills, among others. Unlike in previous times, there’s now a widespread recognition that soft skills are as critical as hard skills. Even some studies (i.e., Grugulis and Vincent,2009) highlight that employers are now starting to marginalize technical skills and privilege soft skills. Despite this trend, there seems to be a lack of clarity around the definition of soft skills, and authors utilize them largely with little agreement on their meaning (Matteson et al., 2016).
There are different ways of naming ‘soft skills,’ various definitions, and different manners of categorizing and clustering them (Succi, 2019.). The terminology referring to soft skills differs across countries (Marin-Zapata et al.,2021). For instance, in Australia, some people call soft skills vital/key competencies, soft skills, generic skills, or employability skills. In the United States, some equivalent phases are employability skills or workplace know-how, while in European countries, many different terms are used to refer to soft skills, such as key skills, core skills, life skills, transferable skills (England), transversal skills (France), key competencies, general competences (Germany), key competencies, essential competencies (Portugal), and generic competencies (Spain) (Marin-Zapata et al., 2021).
As highlighted in various research studies (Cinque, 2015; Succi,2019; Succi& Canovi,2020; Marin-Zapata et al.,2021), soft skills are also named differently across international institutions. For example, soft skills are referred to as life skills (World Health Organization (WHO), 1994), transversal skills, generic competencies, critical competencies, and skills for a well-functioning society (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD),2003,2012,2015), and lifelong learning (European Union (EU), 2006). The following chart summarizes how soft skills are called across several countries and international institutions.
|Countries and institutions||denominations|
|Australia||Vital/key competencies, soft skills, generic skills, employability skills|
|The United States||Employability skills, workplace know-how|
|England||key skills (England, Ireland) core skills (Scotland) life skills, transferable skills, cross competencies|
|Germany||Key competencies, general competencies|
|Other EU countries||Key competencies (Austria, Belgium, and Denmark), essential competencies (Portugal), generic competencies (Spain)|
|OECD||Transversal skills, critical competences, social progress|
Source: Adapted from (Cinque, 2015) and (Marin-Zapata et al.,2021).
These different nomenclatures of soft skills may even complicate our understanding of soft skills, but perhaps, the best way to understand the concepts is to contrast them with ‘hard skills’. Although the exact origin of the categorizations of the skills between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ remains not quite clear, the research study of Whitemore and Fry (1974), cited by Marin-Zapata et al. (2021), appears to provide us some clue. The authors (Whitemore and Fry,1974) defined ‘soft skills as important job-related skills that involve little or no interaction with machines and can be applied in various job contexts’. This definition suggests that soft skills are generic skills, as opposed to specific skills required for particular domains or disciplines. On the other hand, ‘hard skills’ is defined as the tangible technical expertise and know-how needed for work and are relevant to each job position. For example, an accountant may require knowledge and skills in accounting practices, while these capabilities are unnecessary for a web designer. Thus, the issue of transferability across tasks is one of the most defining aspects of soft skills (Fernandez & Liu, 2019).
- Cinque, M. (2015). “Lost in translation”. Soft skills development in European countries. Tuning Journal for Higher Education, 3(2), 389. https://doi.org/10.18543/tjhe-3(2)-2016pp389-427
- Fernandez, F., & Liu, H. (2019). Examining relationships between soft skills and occupational outcomes among U.S. adults with—And without—University degrees. Journal of Education and Work, 32(8), 650–664. https://doi.org/10.1080/13639080.2019.1697802
- Grugulis, I., & Vincent, S. (2009). Whose skill is it anyway?: ‘Soft’ skills and polarization. Work, Employment and Society, 23(4), 597–615. https://doi.org/10.1177/0950017009344862
- Marin-Zapata, S. I., Román-Calderón, J. P., Robledo-Ardila, C., & Jaramillo-Serna, M. A. (2021). Soft skills, do we know what we are talking about? Review of Managerial Science, 16(4), 969–1000. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11846-021-00474-9
- Matteson, M. L., Anderson, L., & Boyden, C. (2016). “Soft Skills”: A Phrase in Search of Meaning. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 16(1), 71–88. https://doi.org/10.1353/pla.2016.0009
- Succi, C. (2019). Are you ready to find a job? Ranking of a list of soft skills to enhance graduates’ employability. 17.
- Succi, C., & Canovi, M. (2020). Soft skills to enhance graduate employability: Comparing students and employers’ perceptions. Studies in Higher Education, 45(9), 1834–1847. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2019.1585420