Are Soft Skills Really Skills?

November 2, 2017

You hear it in virtually every conversation with an employer seeking entry-level workers, “Just give me someone with good soft skills and I will train them.” Human resources departments in manufacturing, the service industry, healthcare and others regularly bemoan their high turnover rates, often caused by employees’ lack of those same soft skills.

So what are these “soft skills” we keep hearing about? The U.S. Department of Labor lists the following soft skills on its Youth in Transition webpage: Communication, Enthusiasm & Attitude, Teamwork, Networking, Problem Solving & Critical Thinking, and Professionalism. A year-long project by the Summit County (OH) Income, Education & Workforce Development taskforce identified six of them: Adaptability, Communication, Critical Thinking, Dependability, Integrity and Work Ethic.

Search the web and you will find countless lists, studies, opinion pieces, and more, all seeking to identify Soft Skills. I found one that listed 40 different skills.

There are arguments to be had on many of them. Check most lists and you’ll find them populated with skills that, at least semantically, may not be skills at all. Ethics are not skills. They are traits. The argument being that I can teach you what ethics are, but I cannot embed them in you. I can however, teach you to answer a phone in a professional manner, providing you with a work-related skill.

The point however, is moot. However you define them, these skills, traits and abilities are desirable to employers. Some can be taught and some are inherit within the potential employee. Wikipedia says this about soft skills… “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.”1  Reference.com describes soft skills as… “Another phrase used to describe emotional intelligence, or skills used to work effectively and harmonize with other people.” (2)

Heckman and Kautz in their paper, Hard Evidence on Soft Skills claim, "Achievement tests miss, or more accurately, do not adequately capture, soft skills—personality traits, goals, motivations, and preferences that are valued in the labor market, in school, and in many other domains. The larger message of this paper is that soft skills predict success in life, that they produce that success, and that programs that enhance soft skills have an important place in an effective portfolio of public policies." (3)

This is exactly why programs like ours at JOG are so critical in a young person’s development. In an era where the common sense “Soft Skills” are increasingly uncommon, JOG offers an evidence based solution to the gap HR professional and other industry leaders bemoan.

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soft_skills

(2) https://www.reference.com/education/soft-skills-36e3c47cf805a50e?aq=what+are+soft+skills#

(3) Hard Evidence on Soft Skills, James J. Heckman and Tim Kautz, University of Chicago Department of Economics, Aug. 1, 2013