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There's Nothing Soft about "Soft Skills"

Hello, All -

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a conference where my roundtable group had a discussion about what are commonly referred to as "soft skills".   Many individuals in the group admitted to using the term, but agreed that it doesn't do a good job of describing the scope of the skills referred to, or their importance, especially in career pathways programs.  Soon after this, I read the article, Data Reveals Why The 'Soft' In 'Soft Skills' Is A Major Misnomer, which breaks down the data behind "soft skills" to show just how valuable, and critical they are to an individual's success in the workplace, and other contexts.  The piece also refers to these as "power skills". 

This leads me to wonder, what other terms are being used to describe these types of skills by adult educators?  Recently, there was another discussion on LINCS that mentioned the term "durable human qualities" to describe these skills.  

I invite members to share what other terms they use, or have heard used, to describe these misnamed "soft skills".  I'd like to compile a list of what is out there, and see if there's a better term for us to adopt as a community.  If you're still using "soft skills", that's ok too.  What do you think might make a better term moving forward?

Thanks for participating!

Mike Cruse

Career Pathways Moderator



Marian Thacher's picture

I'm glad you are bringing up the issue of what to call these skills, Mike. I too read the article in Forbes that suggested called them "power skills," and I really like that because these skills do give an individual power, but that doesn't really describe what they are. And of course "soft skills" doesn't describe them either. Looking at the Employability Skills Framework, some of these skills are interpersonal skills, some are personal qualities, and then there are communication skills and critical thinking skills. "Durable human qualities" makes it sound like these are things you are born with, not things you can learn. What can we call these things that aren't actual work skills but are so important to success in every domain of adult life? Inquiring minds want to know!

Elizabeth Andress's picture

In Minnesota we have developed an Academic, Career & Employability Skills set of standards, embodied in a Transitions Integration Framework that guides instruction.  We use the term "transitions skills" in place of "soft skills", agreeing that these skills are anything but "soft".  I would disagree that they are "qualities" - these are skills that can be taught and learned.  "Transition" is broad enough to apply to both academic and employment settings.  I'm not sure that the term transitions skills could take the place of soft skills broadly, however, as it is particular to ABE's commitment to equip learners for the next steps on their pathways beyond our classrooms - to successfully transition into work and/or post-secondary education.  But I do find the term useful, and it defines one of our three sets of content standards in Minnesota.  What do others think of the term?

David J. Rosen's picture
One hundred

I have heard "soft skills" referred to as "Job readiness skills,"  "workforce preparation Skills," "non-cognitive skills," and "performance character skills" (Paul Tough's term, see my blog article on this at )

In the adult ed context, I prefer "workforce preparation skills" as long as it is clear that these are not specific occupational skills but rather teachable skills like:

  • Social intelligence — an ability to recognize interpersonal dynamics and adapt quickly to different social and work situations
  • Self control
  • Optimism
  • Perseverance/grit
  • Diligence
  • Volition — not just motivation (i.e. “I really want to finish a college degree.”) but also the will to make it happen, to break the goal down into steps, and one by one and over time to overcome the obstacles to accomplish those steps. (Maybe this is the same as perseverance/grit with optimism)
  • Good work habits such as punctuality, regular attendance, and asking questions when one doesn't understand
  • Time management skills
  • Teamwork skills
  • Help-seeking behavior
  • Social problem-solving skills
  • Assertiveness in getting one's needs met, and
  • Gratitude — the habit of verbally appreciating it when someone helps you

David J. Rosen

Paul Jurmo's picture

This question has been around a long time, especially in the area of workforce education.  Employers, researchers, educators, and others have stressed the importance of the kinds of skill and attitudes listed in the previous posts and tried to identify, define, and develop strategies for helping learners develop and strengthen such assets.  As noted in one of the previous posts, these assets are applicable not only to carrying out work-related responsibilities but in other life roles (e.g., academic, family, civic roles).  These are the kinds of strengths we hope our children will enter adulthood with and the things we are concerned about when we see them missing in the adults we interact with and/or see in the media.  To add to the lists already presented in previous posts, here are some more such strengths (drawn from experience training Peace Corps Volunteers to work in foreign cultures), organized by letter: "R" words:  respect (for others and for self), responsibility, reasonable/rational behavior, resilience/self-reliance; "C" words: creativity, communicativeness, collaborativeness/teamwork; and  "H" words: humility, humor, honesty, honor.  While ideally everyone emerges from childhood with these qualities, I believe these transferable socio-cultural navigation tools can be reinforced in youth and adults in well-designed and -supported adult basic skills and other training programs.         Paul Jurmo.

Michael Cruse's picture
One hundred

Hi, Paul -

Thanks for your comment.  I'm curious what else you can tell us about how you worked with Peace Corps volunteers to develop the R, C, and H skills you mentioned in your post?  Do you see any opportunity for transfer between these two groups?


Mike Cruse

Kathy_Tracey's picture
One hundred

I came across this article, As Tech Companies Hire More Liberal Arts Majors, More Students Are Choosing STEM Degrees.  The author, Sydney Johnson indicates there is a strong mismatch between job seekers and employers as employers may have difficulty articulating the broad 'human skills' they are looking for. 

The article indicates that liberal arts majors need more skills in translating the acquired human skills of leadership, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking - they foundation of humanities education - to employers. 

Isn't this a very similar discussion to what we are having here? Perhaps the issues isn't how we define durable human qualities or soft skills, but how we teach our students to define and apply these skills into the workforce? 

I'd love to hear your thoughts. 
Kathy Tracey