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.
Robert Pare' on Saturday 02/01/2020 at 11:30 AM
An update whose time has come! Thank you.
Amy Mazur on Sunday 02/02/2020 at 12:30 PM
Thank you for sharing this sorely needed article Ann. Over the years, I have been most interested in the research that has come out of the Wellesley Centers for Women, and their valuing of relational skills supports your view of the way we have misused the term "soft skills". Relational skills connected to empathetic and emotional competence, authenticity, fluid expertise, and embedding outcomes, just to name a few, are so often overlooked, gendered, and then "disappeared" (Joyce Fletcher's work). Reclaiming these valuable skills is vital to building new wisdom for organizational effectiveness, society & life.
Ann Villiers on Sunday 02/02/2020 at 04:19 PM
Thank you Robert and Amy for your comments.
Sue Motulsky on Monday 02/03/2020 at 10:45 AM
Thank you for this timely and much needed course correction--your argument is clear and compelling and it needs to be made in other venues. I agree with Amy Mazur about the importance of relational skills, or social skills, for everyone and yet how they have been sequestered as female and thus, devalued. Wonderful article!
Clara Nydam on Monday 02/03/2020 at 03:23 PM
Ann, thank you for your concise and to the point discussion of this critical issue. I posted your article to my LinkedIn page.
Ann Villiers on Thursday 02/06/2020 at 08:27 PM
I appreciate your comments Sue and Clara. Many thanks.
Julia Lapan on Wednesday 02/12/2020 at 09:20 PM
Thank you for writing this! Discourse matters. I especially appreciate you giving us alternative terms to use for this. Brava!
Robert Manolson on Tuesday 02/18/2020 at 11:44 PM
There is absolutely nothing SOFT about soft skills. Awesome article here! Thanks.
Tony Bromley on Wednesday 02/19/2020 at 04:11 AM
I think this is an excellent article with which I complete agree. Myself and a group of colleagues over here in the UK University sector have been arguing against skills terminology in general for a number of years. Where we have got to in terms of alternatives is available here https://www.sdduonline.leeds.ac.uk/dynamic-development/
Lavonne Bell on Monday 02/24/2020 at 05:04 PM
This is quite an interesting article and great information on the skills necessary for any career choice rather soft or hard skills. Over the past five years, since working in the Workforce Industry as a Career Advisor/Employment Consultant advice has been given about how employers would prefer soft skills over hard skills in less technical careers. However, Dr. Villiers has provided insight on the effectiveness of communication and interpersonal skills in any industry. When meeting with job seekers, I will no longer tell them employers prefer soft skills. I will tell them what skills are necessary for their career choice utilizing O'net online and other resources.
Ann Villiers on Wednesday 04/01/2020 at 08:33 PM
Thank you for the further comments. It is heartening to know I'm not alone on this.
Wade Channell on Monday 03/22/2021 at 09:30 AM
I have only now seen this article, and must thank you for it. In my own work on women's economic empowerment, I have chosen the term "core" skills, because these skills are fundamental to success - whether from the employer's viewpoint or the recipient of the skills training. From an economic standpoint, "soft" just doesn't come close to "hard" for value. Time to dump this term forever.