It's a Matter of Interpretation: Examining Soft Skills Data as a Community of Practice

By  Rebecca Pagel, Monitoring and Evaluation Technical Associate at Education Development Center (EDC)

While a growing body of research points to the importance of soft skills development for youths’ education and employment outcomes, less is known about how youth perceive the importance of these skills. Do youth value some soft skills more than others? Do they value different skills than employers and educators do?  That’s what we are studying in an ongoing soft skills study funded by a YouthPower Learning grant. During a recent event hosted by the YouthPower Learning’s Cross-Sectoral Skills for Youth Community of Practice (CoP) our EDC research team elicited feedback on and discuss the meaning of initial findings from the study tackling these questions.

The Study

The study, conducted in Honduras, the Philippines, and Rwanda, examined and compared the skills that youth, employers, and educators, respectively, felt were ideal for success in employment and education.
We identified four key findings from the study:

  1. Youth understood which skills were important for education and employment, but they consistently underestimated how important these skills were to employers and educators.
  2. Educators valued creativity and openness to new ways of thinking more than employers, while employers valued cooperation and interpersonal skills more than educators.
  3. Employers valued different skills for different work sectors (production, direct services, and business).
  4. Youth, though not educators, felt more skills were necessary for success for general secondary school than for vocational school.

The value that was added by the Community of Practice meeting

In participating in the interpretation of these findings, we were able to benefit from CoP members’ programmatic and research experience to frame interpretation of the initial results and influence further analysis of the data from this study.  

CoP members stressed that:

Gender Matters. When sex disaggregation of quantitative data does not reveal meaningful differences between males and females at first blush, the correct response is to ask another question. While this study did not uncover differences in the skills males and females perceived to be ideal, studies such as these must not, as a result, simply conclude that there are no differences between males and females. Instead, such studies must continue to explore how gender plays out in the data in more nuanced ways.
Work Sector Matters. Different sectors of work—including the three broad categories of production, direct service, and business examined in this study—seem to require different soft skills. Yet these sectors might require different soft skills in different cultural contexts, so researchers and implementers should pay attention not only to different sectoral needs, but those needs in particular contexts.
Employers’ and Educators’ Voices aren’t the Only Ones that Matter. Employers demand labor, so we often view the skills employers demand as the skills that youth must supply. The CoP, however, suggested that the employer’s view may not always be the only meaningful view. Generational differences and differences in education background may affect employer perceptions just as much as they affect youth’s perceptions. While understanding the gaps in youth’s and employer’s ideals is an important task, we must remember that those gaps are produced by perceptions that are grounded not just in the market, but in the respondent’s identity as well.

Take-aways for future research: We are leveraging the input from the Community of Practice for our soft skills study’s qualitative data collection phase.
In addition, the CoP’s discussion of the findings suggested some key principles for work in the future. Some steps for similar research include the following:

  • We need to know more about which skills are important for which work sectors. Future studies could—instead of trying to generalize skills that are important across broad categories like education and employment—focus specifically on how work sector differently affects which skills are in demand.
  • We should examine the relationships between education background and other demographic variables with perceptions of which skills are important. If there are strong correlations found, this has meaning for who and how we train on which soft skills.
  • We must find a way to measure skills that are important in the market without relying on employer, educator, or youth perceptions, as these perceptions may be biased and not directly reflect market demand.

Feel free to add your comment below: Does your own research support similar findings and observations? Have you used any relevant skills measurement tools for soft skills that do not use self-reporting?


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