Hot Issues of Skills Development

This page provides summaries of previous and relevant research on skills development.

SKY[Skills and Knowledge for Youth] home Hot Issues of Skills Development What are soft skills, and why do they matter? (Part 2)

What are soft skills, and why do they matter? (Part 2) Francia Randriatiana
  • Skills Needed in Labour Market and Issues Related to Skills of Workers

While the differences between soft and hard skills have been made clear, to some extent, in the previous essay (Part I: ① Hard skills and Soft skills), this second part focuses mainly on soft skills and highlights their importance in today’s fast-changing societies and competitive labor market.

Soft skills have different definitions, but one of the most cited soft skills definitions is probably that of Heckman and Kautz (2012). According to the authors, “soft skills [are] personality traits, goals, motivations, and preferences that are valued in the labor market, in school, and in many other domains […].” They are “a mix of dispositions, understandings, attributes, and practices” (Heckman and Kautz, 2012:451, cited in Succi,2019:284). Including personality traits or character attributes under the umbrella of soft skills in this definition has raised some doubt among scholars about whether those skills can be trained or be considered ‘innate’. However, a few studies have revealed that they are learnable, particularly in the early stage of an individual’s life. In line with this, Kauz et al.,2014 emphasize that “Character is a skill, not a trait. Character skills are stable across different tasks at any age, but skills can change over the life cycle” (Kautz et al., 2014).

Also, some scholars classify soft skills as non-cognitive skills. In other words, specific skills such as life skills, social skills, interpersonal skills, leadership skills, and social competencies are generally utilized to refer to the ’emotional side’ of human beings, in contrast to the IQ (Intelligent Quotient) component related to cognitive skills. However, other researchers (i.e., Cinque, 2015) argue that considering soft skills such as “critical thinking” or “problem-solving” as emotional skills can be debatable. Cinque (2015) further insists that soft skills can be categorized as cognitive and non-cognitive. The author added that soft skills include social/interpersonal and intra-personal skills or meta-competencies, such as the capacity to work on competencies to reframe and transfer them from one field to another.

Considering the above issues, Succi & Canovi (2020:1835) propose a rather integrative definition of soft skills as they put it: “Soft skills represent a dynamic combination of cognitive and meta-cognitive skills, interpersonal, intellectual and practical skills. Soft skills help people to adapt and behave positively to deal effectively with the challenges of their professional and everyday life.” From this perspective, soft skills encompass a wide range of interpersonal and social qualities and competencies, transferable across economic sectors and industries. The list of soft skills could be lengthy or even limitless. Still, employers’ commonly most valued soft skills can include communication skills, teamwork, adaptability, problem-solving, critical and innovative thinking, creativity, and capacity for lifelong learning, among others (Succi and Canovi, 2020).

Despite the lack of consensus on the definitions of soft skills, there seems to be a general agreement on their importance and relevance in present-day competitive workplaces and globalized societies. Soft skills are believed to be vital for personal development, social participation, and workplace success. Research studies (Succi and Canovi, 2020:1835) have also demonstrated that ‘soft skills are positively correlated with employability, particularly for new graduates entering the labor market.

In examining the relationships between the use of soft skills and occupational outcomes among adult workers with and without university degrees in the United States, Fernandez & Liu (2019) found out that there were positive, statistically significant relationships between the use of soft skills and workers’ occupational outcomes ( increased wages/earning and occupational status). Literature also suggests that soft skills are not only beneficial at an individual level of an employee, but they can also cumulatively enhance the productivity of the whole organization or industry.

Another reported benefit of soft skills is that they can complement hard skills. Soft skills allow workers to share their hard skills more effectively in the Workplace. In other words, hard skills alone are not enough for an individual to succeed in today’s modern work environments. An individual can be excellent at technical or domain-specific skills, but if they fail to communicate effectively, are unable to work in a team, or can’t manage time, they will not be successful in the Workplace.

To conclude, although there is continuing debate on defining soft skills, the key is that these skills are distinct from the conventionally defined technical or hard skills. Because of the lack of an agreed term and rigorous framework, determining or defining soft skills generally depends upon the contexts and the perceived needs of individuals and organizations. After all, soft skills are becoming more and more critical in today’s hyper-competitive labor market. Therefore, education and training institutions should make the necessary efforts to impart these skills to increase their graduates’ employability. Likewise, it’s crucial for business organizations to carefully review their training programs and place soft skills as a strategic element of such training programs or courses to ensure the workers’ career growth as well as the overall success of the organizations.

Binsaeed, R. H., Unnisa, S. T., & Rizvi, L. J. (2009). The Impact of Soft skills in today’s Workplace. International Journal of Economics, Commerce and Management. United Kingdom
Cinque, M. (2015). “Lost in translation”. Soft skills development in European countries. Tuning Journal for Higher Education, 3(2), 389.
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.
Grugulis, I., & Vincent, S. (2009). Whose skill is it anyway?: ‘Soft’ skills and polarization. Work, Employment and Society, 23(4), 597–615.
Heckman, J.J. and Kautz, T. (2012) ‘Hard evidence on soft skills’, Labour Economics, Vol. 19,
No. 4, pp.451–464.
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.
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.
Succi, C. (n.d.). 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.
Touloumakos, A. K. (2020). Expanded Yet Restricted: A Mini Review of the Soft Skills Literature. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 2207.