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An end to “soft skills”?

“Soft skills” are in the news at the moment. A quick Google search for media articles on the subject comes up with about 164,000 results.

LinkedIn defines them as the skills that are “less tangible and harder to quantify, such as etiquette, getting along with others, listening and engaging in small talk.”

Soft skills are derived from the right brain and include people skills, social skills, and personality traits. Unlike hard skills, (the ones you need to have for a specific job – you wouldn’t hire a plumber without plumbing skills, for instance) they’re more difficult to measure. However, these skills are usually fairly flexible and can help a person thrive in a variety of professions or industries.

LinkedIn have been publishing lists of the top ‘hard skills’ for the last few years now. Not surprisingly perhaps, the 2018 list is dominated by technology-based ones, like cloud and distributed computing; statistical analysis and data mining; middleware and integration software. But for the first time this year they’ve included “soft skills” as well: Leadership, communication, collaboration and time management top the list.

Ask most CEOs, HR Directors or line managers and they’ll tell you how much they value these skills. During the spring of 2017, nearly 1,400 CEOs across the globe took part in PwC’s 20th CEO Survey, comprehensively focusing, in part, on today’s workforce. The survey found that 77% of respondents viewed underdeveloped key “soft” skills as the biggest threat to today’s business.

Developing these skills is hard. They need a culture that recognises that to do so you need room to experiment; to take risks; to be able to fail and learn from failure; to reflect. And this learning doesn’t have to start in the workplace. It can start from the moment an infant starts to learn that running too quickly can lead to a grazed knee.

They can be developed in young people through giving everyone an access to a great non-formal education. Our research at The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award has shown that through engagement in voluntary service, taking part in physical recreation, discovering personal interests and talents and learning about leadership through adventurous activity, young people become confident, responsible, reflective, innovative and engaged learners.

This month, Katrina Rozga wrote in the South China Morning Post, “Rather than fret about exam passes, test scores and paper qualifications, parents should put more emphasis on nurturing the social and emotional qualities that are equally vital in helping their children to achieve, both at work and in their personal lives.”

The government of Gibraltar is currently undertaking a review of its school curriculum. It is considering placing non-formal education activities alongside classroom study of academic subjects, because it recognises that participation in these activities leads to young people developing vital skills.

The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award Outcomes, published in 2015, outline the skills, behaviours and attitudes that young people acquire through participation in the Award:


But here’s the thing: These outcomes aren’t soft. They’re not expendable, as the word “soft” might suggest. They’re essential. They’re real. They’re skills for life – as the UK Scout Association has recently dubbed them.

Seth Godin, author of the business bestseller, “The Tipping Point”, has written about the matter here.

“Soft” is squidgy; slushy; sloppy. If you describe a person as ‘soft’ then they’re weak and lack courage.

“Soft” is the wrong word to describe these skills.

(And we shouldn’t call them 21st Century skills either, no matter how fashionable the term seems to be in certain education circles. These skills have always been needed. They’ve always been recognised by enlightened teachers and youth workers as being important.)

So let’s stop calling them ‘soft’. Let’s call them ‘universal skills’, real skills’ or ‘core skills’ instead. Personally, I favour “universal skills”… Because that’s truly what they are – and their acquisition should be an entitlement for every young person.

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