What’s in a name: should we redefine soft skills to engage young learners?

What should we call ‘soft skills’ to highlight their importance in the workplace and for younger workers? Stephanie Morgan shares her thoughts.

Whether it’s the IT sector or STEM, business managers and leaders are decrying the shortfall of skilled staff. While there has been a focus on increasing the numbers of young people training in more traditional roles and a greater uptake in degree level science subjects, the new thorn in organisations’ sides is the now apparent scarcity of soft skills in young people entering the workforce.

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Whether that refers to leadership and management attributes, or the more difficult-to-quantify skills like emotional intelligence and critical thinking, the UK soft skills gap won’t narrow unless a fresh approach is taken.

You only need look at the recent stats (1) to see that something is amiss. Despite huge youth unemployment – 40 per cent of all jobless people in the UK are under the age of 25 – one in five vacancies in the UK remains unfilled due to a lack of the right skills.

Research by McDonalds (2) found that by 2020, half a million UK workers will struggle to secure work if this isn’t remedied. The ultimate goal of the study has been to bring about ideas on how to develop soft skills in the workplace to benefit the business and ultimately, the employee throughout their careers and lives.

When you consider that the annual contribution of soft skills is expected to increase significantly by 2020 to £109 billion in real terms, there is a compelling argument for making this a priority for L&D. Yet no one appears to be fully addressing the situation.

It’s fair to say that the soft skills issue lies predominantly at the feet of Gen Y (those born between 1978-1989) and Gen Z (1990-1999). Cultural factors, parenting trends and a reliance on communication via the internet, email, text, IM and social media have all undoubtedly played a part in shaping these behaviours.

Offering training that shows them the merits of changing their behaviour, learning new skills and thus adding to their own ‘soft skills CV’, is one step closer to narrowing the gap.

What are the short-fall soft skills?

According to a recent LinkedIn survey of hiring managers in the US, over half (59 per cent) have found it difficult to source staff with these illusive soft skills. Business planning, cross-functional team leadership and emotional intelligence topped the most desired list, with more traditional soft skills such as management and coaching being less sought-after. Areas like stress management, punctuality and conflict resolution were also hot on the list.

This correlates with a trend we have noted in the last 12 months – an increase in requests for time-management courses, suggesting that organisations are responding to the need for skills and seeking out solutions. However, this is merely a drop in the ocean so what can—and should—employers and their training departments, employees, and the education system be doing differently? Is it time to redefine soft skills?

What’s in a name?

Whoever first decided to calls these skills, ‘soft’ was missing a trick. It might only be a matter of semantics, but the term ‘soft’ denotes a less urgent requirement, something fluffy and altogether admissible – and to say that emotional intelligence, team-building, leadership and business planning are secondary skills is a big part of the problem.

Cobbling together talents like conflict management, communication, delegation, role clarity, alignment, engagement, self-motivation, maximising productivity of others, listening, giving and receiving feedback and managing work/life balance has somehow diluted their importance and made them ‘uncool.’

Would it not be useful to re-categorise them? To give them more pertinence, more respect? This would help to make them a priority for employers, not only during the recruitment process, but in ongoing training and CPD.

And it’s not only the name ‘soft skills’ that is irksome. The lack-lustre definitions have not helped their cause. Using this confusing terminology and wishy-washy descriptions that provide little or no context to young, inexperienced workers is only going to compound the problem.

For example, for a student to achieve a first in their degree, they certainly need to have self-discipline, ambition and motivation – critical attributes in a professional role. However, young people don’t always recognise these skills or see them as marketable.

So perhaps it is time to rename them. These, let’s call them ‘Core’ skills, are absolutely essential to employees’ career longevity. And there is certainly nothing ‘soft’ about developing them. To define them as central to business success would help young people see them as more important.

Recruiters should list them in their ‘essential’ criteria when advertising roles rather than push them into the ‘less desirable’ column. For example, ‘critical thinking’ might not mean much to a graduate, but when it is applied in a real-time context so it becomes relevant and coherent would certainly help demystify it. 

Author Steve Siebold, a specialist in critical thinking in the workplace, defines the core skills as ‘a business approach where the emotion is removed from an issue and it is observed objectively to come to a logical conclusion. It helps one analyse a situation, generate solutions and obtain feedback.’

It sounds like a pretty useful business skill, one that is easy to learn and identify when presented in a refreshing, relevant way. It is a fallacy to think that young people do not want to develop these new skills, but as L&D professionals, and business leaders, we need to give them the opportunity to do so, or even help them recognise that they already possess them, and how they can draw them out and develop them further.

Focus on core skills

Organisations can start helping the cause on the front-line by shaping their on-the-job training opportunities to include courses where these core skills are the focus. In fact, they could go further by enriching their current apprenticeships and work experience placements so that young people coming into the workforce can assimilate these skills by working alongside those co-workers who already possess them.

Teaching skills like citizenship, emotional intelligence and accountability breeds brand leaders within an organisation and will ultimately create a motivated, engaged and switched-on generation of new employees.

From parents to teachers, HR professionals to business leaders, let’s abandon the terminology, ditch the dodgy definitions and encourage our young learners, employees and co-workers to see the merit in recognising, developing and embracing these essential life skills. Only then will we see a change. Making our young employees understand the value of these core skills in the wider world and in the context of their ongoing future careers really is the key. 



1) Youth unemployment statistics

2) McDonalds soft skills research


About the author

Stephanie Morgan is Director of Learning Solutions at Bray Leino Learning – http://brayleinolearning.co.uk and can be contacted through Twitter: @StephanieLandD


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