soft skills for the future

Soft skills for the future

By Marieke Vandeweyer.

Blog44.0Types of skills for the future

Structural changes, such as technological progress and globalisation, are changing the skills needed in the labour market. The importance of assessing skills needs was already discussed in a previous blog post. In light of the changing skills demand, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has identified the 16 core skills needed in the 21st century (Figure 1). These essential skills are a combination of cognitive and soft skills. The list of cognitive skills is dominated by STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills. This is not surprising, as the demand for these skills has been growing significantly (see our earlier post “The growing need for developing (the right) STEM skills” for more details). Aside from these traditional cognitive skills, it is also necessary for individuals to develop their soft skills, as employers are increasingly looking for individuals with strong non-cognitive skills. While these soft skills are mainly complementary to cognitive skills (see the post “What skills do employers want” for a more extensive discussion), they are growing in importance, as employment growth has been strongest in occupations requiring both high social and cognitive skills (Deming, 2015). This growing importance of non-cognitive skills was discussed in one of our previous posts.


Youth overestimate their soft skills

A recent survey (commissioned by four European interim sector training funds, App-titude project) on the perception of soft skills among employers and youth has shown that these two groups have significantly different views on the supply of soft skills. In general, the employers’ perception of the soft skills of young individuals is more negative than these individuals’ own perception. While 48% of the interviewed employers indicate that youth lack written communication skills, only 6% of young people participating in the survey acknowledge lacking these skills. Similar differences in perception exist for ‘”being self-critical”, “knowing one’s own strengths and weaknesses”, “conflict management” and “knowing when to listen and when to speak”.

Moreover, the interviewed employers report that a lack of specific soft skills can be a reason not to hire certain (young) candidates. The skills that are seen as most important for this decision are “having the right attitude”, “flexibility”, “oral communication skills”, “the ability to make a professional introduction” and “punctuality”. The size of the problem is significant, with 46% of employers reporting not having hired a young candidate for not having the right attitude.

These numbers suggest that there is a gap in the soft skills that employers want and the ones that are supplied by workers. Moreover, with individuals overestimating their own soft skills, investment in further development of these skills might be below the optimal level.

Soft skills in OECD countries

While internationally comparable data on cognitive skills readily exist (e.g. PISA, PIAAC), it is much more difficult to measure soft skills. Using proxies for problem solving, creativity and curiosity developed by the World Economic Forum, Figure 2 shows the relative level of soft skills in a range of OECD countries (without saying anything about the size of the differences between countries). Soft skills, as measured by these three proxies, are highest in Finland, Japan and Korea, and lowest in Chile, Israel and Spain. While these numbers provide suggestive evidence of the ranking of countries in terms of soft skill levels, more and better measures are necessary to fully assess countries’ performances.


Further investment in soft skills is crucial

With the demand for soft skills growing, and evidence suggesting that supply is not sufficient to fulfil this demand, the need for soft skills development becomes more pressing. As benefits from soft skills development are not restricted to labour market outcomes, but more broadly pertain to well-being, the return on investment in soft skills can potentially be very large.

Soft skills can be developed early on in life through parental engagement and attachment, and can be enhanced in the education system through curricular and extra-curricular activities. A review of evidence on school-based social and emotional learning programmes showed that these programmes have a significant positive effect on social and emotional skills, attitudes, behaviour and academic performance (Durlak et al., 2011). Many OECD countries’ curricula include subjects specifically targeted to developing social and emotional skills, such as physical education, moral education and civic education. Soft skill development can, however, also be integrated across all subjects. The majority of European countries take a cross-curricular approach to the development of civic and social competencies and sense of initiative and entrepreneurship (European Commission, 2012). As extra-curricular activities, either provided by schools or communities, like sports or volunteer work, also contribute to soft skills, it is important that all students have equal access to these activities.

Many soft skills can be developed further during working life, and they should be included in life-long learning policies. While soft skills will develop naturally “on-the-job”, employers can stimulate soft skills development by offering training programmes focusing on skills like oral communication and leadership. Young employees can also benefit from mentoring programmes, in which they get advice from more senior colleagues. Finally, similar training programmes should be available for the unemployed, in order to increases their employability.


Deming, David J. (2015). The growing importance of social skills in the labour market, NBER Working paper, No. 21473.

Durlak, J. A. et al. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions, Child Development 82 (1), 405–432.

European Commission (2012). Developing Key Competences at School in Europe: Challenges and Opportunities for Policy. Eurydice Report. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

WEF (2015), New Vision For Education – Unlocking the Potential of Technology