Why We Should Stop Using ‘Soft’ Skills
By Ann Villiers
In a rapidly changing world, people of all ages need to understand what skills will enable them to adapt and succeed in whatever context the future brings. There is a wealth of information available to help gain this knowledge, but care is needed in how these skills are described and grouped. Skill terms used include employment readiness, 21st century, transferable, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), tangible/intangible, technical/non-technical, and soft/hard. With such a confusing range of terms it is not surprising that people have difficulty working out what skills they have and may need.
Two words are particularly unhelpful: ‘soft’ and ‘hard’. Their use is widespread, as any Internet search shows. While ‘soft’ skills may seem like convenient shorthand, the term is imprecise, inaccurate, gender-biased, and unprofessional. It is time for career counselors, researchers, teachers, educators, employers, and parents to stop using this term.
The term ‘soft’ skills is imprecise
Standardization aids precise use of terms (National Education Union, 2019) and there is no standardized list of ‘soft’ skills. Compare skill groupings classified as ‘soft’ and you will find a diverse mix of skills, attitudes, and behaviors. While most lists do include communication and interpersonal skills, as a skill category, ‘soft’ lacks precision and consistency.
The term ‘soft’ skills is inaccurate
Typically, ‘soft’ is used to refer to communication and interpersonal skills, implying these skills are light-weight. Describing them as ‘non-technical’ or ‘intangible’ further implies, inaccurately, that they require little effort and no special knowledge. Communication covers a wide range of demanding abilities (Villiers, 2018) essential for many occupations, such as nursing, teaching, sales, aged care; to name a few. To be successful in these roles, one must have abilities such as building rapport, questioning to build understanding, influencing, negotiating, networking, persuading, coaching and mediating; which are all heavy-weight skills because they have a huge impact in the workplace.
So-called ‘soft’ skills are falsely contrasted with equally inaccurate ‘hard’ skills on the basis that the latter are observable, learnable and measurable; qualities claimed, inaccurately, as not shared by ‘soft’ skills. They are not opposite or mutually exclusive. In fact, many work situations need the application of both STEM and interpersonal skills, for example. Success in a science career often requires developing fruitful collaborations, cultivating friendships with colleagues, mentoring students, and effectively communicating accomplishments at conferences and seminars.
Career development professionals do clients a major disservice by using the flawed ‘hard’/’soft’ skills distinction. It perpetuates the false idea that there is little rigor in learning and applying emotional intelligence, persuasion, negotiation, and team leadership. It also fails to recognize that skills are inter-related and context-based. While we can theoretically distinguish cooperation from teamwork, in practice, teamwork will not happen without some cooperation.
The term ‘soft’ skills is gender-biased
Career decision-making is a highly complex interaction of ideas and influences from multiple sources. Research confirms that children form gender-based ideas about careers early in life, and that the media feeds ideas about what work is suitable/unsuitable for women and men (Smith et al. 2012; New Zealand Council for Educational Research, 2008; National Education Union, 2013). So-called ‘soft’ skills are not the domain of girls and women. They are not female or feminine skills. Nor are they ‘touchy-feely,’ less demanding than other skills. Everyone needs to build communication and interpersonal skills, regardless of gender or career choice.
The term ‘soft’ skills is unprofessional
Terminology is part of a profession’s special knowledge. Carefully defined terminology standardizes communication, enables people in a profession to communicate consistently, reduces ambiguity, and increases clarity. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook Glossary does not list ‘soft’ skills, nor does O*Net Online use the term. When you look at glossaries for career development professional associations around the world, most do not list ‘soft’ skills.
Career Counseling Competencies (NCDA, 2009) include: being able to help the public and legislators understand the importance of career counseling; using resources to assist clients in career planning; and having knowledge of the changing roles of women and men. These competencies are demonstrated, in part, by using terms that are agreed, unambiguous, and gender-neutral. Using ‘soft’ skills fails all three requirements.
Alternatives to using ‘soft’ skills
If students and job seekers are to understand what skills are in demand, career counselors, researchers, teachers, and employers need to use accurate, consistent, professional skill terms. This means dropping the use of ‘soft’, as well as ‘hard’, skills.
How to replace 'soft':
- When discussing reports and research on skills, avoid adopting or repeating any use of ‘soft’ skills. Even saying “so-called ‘soft’ skills” keeps the term in circulation.
- When discussing specific skills, use specific skill words, like communication skills, problem solving skills, interpersonal skills.
- When grouping skills that relate to communication and interpersonal skills, use social skills.
The more career development practitioners around the world stop and reconsider their language, the more likely we will have consistent, accurate terminology that well serves our clients and profession.
Mantione, A. (2019). Is this a skill which I see before me? The challenge of measuring skills shortages., LMI Insights Issue No 14, Labour Market Information Council, Canada. Retrieved from: https://lmic-cimt.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/LMI-Insights-No-14-2-1.pdf
National Career Development Association. (2009). Career Counseling Competencies. Retrieved from: https://ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/37798/_self/layout_ccmsearch/true
National Education Union. (2013). Boys’ things and girls’ things. Retrieved from: https://neu.org.uk/media/2931/view
New Zealand Council for Educational Research. (2008). Trading Choices: Young people’s career decisions and gender segregation in the trades [Report prepared for Ministry of Women’s Affairs]. https://women.govt.nz/sites/public_files/trading-choices-young-peoples-decisions-and-gender-segregation-in-the-trades.pdf
Smith, S. L., Choueiti, M., Prescott, A., & Pieper, K. (2012). Gender roles & occupations: A look at character attributes and job-related aspirations in film and television. Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Retrieved from: https://seejane.org/wp-content/uploads/full-study-gender-roles-and-occupations-v2.pdf
Villiers, A. (2018). More than 100 skills in communicating. Retrieved from: https://www.selectioncriteria.com.au/site/wpcontent/uploads/100Communicationskills.pdf
Dr. Ann Villiers is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist® specializing in the sense-making process. With academic, public sector and business careers, Ann is a career coach, writer and author. She is known nationally for her work in demystifying selection criteria used in public sector recruiting. Ann is a Fellow member of the Career Development Association of Australia, was awarded Life Membership in 2019, and in 2015 was awarded the President’s Award for Professional Leadership. Her website is www.selectioncriteria.com.au.