What are soft skills and why does the language we use to describe them matter?
An HR specialist gave a presentation to a class of engineering students about job readiness. As she started to describe the “soft skills” they would need to succeed in the workplace, she felt their attention slipping. She wondered how she could change her language to make the group take the presentation more seriously: after all, skills like collaboration and time management were crucial for their ability to succeed professionally.
At ICTC, a portion of our work consists of labour market research in the digital economy. We are also a capacity building organization, meaning that we strive to better prepare the workforce for the digital economy. In this work, “skills” are often a central topic. What skills do employees need to succeed? What skillsets do employers have trouble hiring? What new skills will allow people to work more effectively?
When skills are discussed, there’s often a de facto division between “hard” and “soft” skills. Hard skills are frequently assumed to be learned, technical, and testable (for example, computer programming or bookkeeping), while soft skills are typically contrasted as non-technical traits and difficult to measure objectively (for example, leadership or enthusiasm).
While the concept is an important one, we’re especially interested in the use of the term “soft skills.” This blog post isn’t about the importance of “soft skills” themselves — we think that they’re absolutely critical — but rather the words people use to describe them.
Despite growing acclaim for soft skills, the term itself has met significant criticism. One critic
notes that the term “perpetuates the assumption, bias, and habit of thinking that soft equals expendable.” The Career Industry Council of Australia
describes the term as “out-of-date and confusing,” “inaccurate” and “gender-biased.”
In our work at ICTC, we’ve heard similar, though mixed, feedback from educators, labour market analysts, and recruiters. HR specialists we’ve spoken with suggest alternate terms like “human skills,” “life skills,” or “non-technical skills” as a replacement.
Similarly, ICTC’s capacity building team has considered whether “soft” is the right word to describe the skills training they provide. Soft, human, or life skills are critical for success in the labour market. They don’t “expire” in the same way that technical skills can, and they can make or break the experience of a team. Conversely, the word “soft” may devalue these skills. Craig Murrell, Curriculum Designer & Facilitator at ICTC, says,
“It’s not just a nice idea to change the term soft skills; it’s essential. As long as the division between soft and hard exists, industry won’t take soft skills seriously. We need to get away from the idea that ‘soft’ equals ‘easy.’”
ICTC continues to evaluate the value and impacts of soft skills on business and the economy and has recently developed a learning program titled AIM (Agile Industry Mindset) to help workers and businesses achieve better outcomes and positive change for tomorrow’s economy.