Introduction to Soft Skills
USAID has funded a series of studies on soft skills for youth development that focuses on identifying the most important soft skills for key youth outcomes — including youth success in the workforce and youth violence prevention and sexual and reproductive health (SRH) — analyzing instruments to measure those skills, and providing guidance on how to help adolescents and young adults build these key skills.
As the evidence base on the importance of soft skills for fostering positive youth outcomes, including workforce success, social and health behaviors, and education, has grown, international youth development programs have increasingly focused on interventions that develop soft skills (also referred to as life skills, socio-emotional skills, and transferrable skills, among other terms).
However, it is less clear which soft skills are most likely to deliver the greatest benefits to youth and to what extent these skills are similar or different across key outcome areas.
USAID’s studies have found that evidence and practice support the theory that a common set of skills can lead to positive outcomes in multiple domains of youth’s lives, including SRH, violence prevention, and workforce success.
Moreover, programming that provides opportunities to learn relevant skills is often more strategic and appealing to youth than programming that focuses on the avoidance of risky behaviors. From the youth perspective, SRH, violence, and earning money are not separate, but interrelated, with one domain of behavior often affecting the others (Pittman et al., 2003; Lerner, 2003).
What are soft skills?
The term “soft skills” refers to a broad set of skills, behaviors, and personal qualities that enable people to effectively navigate their environment, relate well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals. Different disciplines use different terms to refer to these skills.
How do different disciplines or sectors define soft skills?
Because so many different terms are used for this set of skills, it is important to create a common terminology and definitions for the soft skill constructs that emerged from the literature. Researchers and practitioners alike can use this common terminology to advance the soft skills evidence base — the original terminology can be found here and an updated version can be found here.
Why are soft skills important?
Evidence across fields and disciplines highlights the importance of “soft skills” to long-term education, employment, health, and violence prevention outcomes (Deming 2015; Almlund et al., 2011; Heckman et al., 2006; Carneiro et al. 2007). Empirical research indicates that self-control and positive self-concept prevent crime, delinquency, risky sexual behaviors, and unemployment, and promote better health outcomes and workforce success in adulthood (Fitzsimons and Finkel, 2011; Goodman et al., 2015; Lippman et al., 2014; National Research Council, 2012). Social and emotional skills predicted high social returns and medium labor market returns, according to cross-country longitudinal analyses by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) (OECD, 2015).
How are soft skills related to PYD?
Soft skills are only one part of the puzzle. Youth cannot develop soft skills without a supportive, enabling environment. For more on PYD approaches in developing countries, see the following resource.
Why are soft skills important?
Almlund, M., Duckworth, A., Heckman, J.J., and Kautz, T. (2011). Personality psychology and economics. In E. A. Hanushek, S. Machin, and L. Woßmann (Eds.), Handbook of the Economics of Education, Volume 4, pp. 1–181. Amsterdam: Elsevier
Carneiro, P. M., & Heckman, J. J. (2003). Human capital policy.
Deming, D. J. (2015). The growing importance of social skills in the labor market (No. w21473). National Bureau of Economic Research.
Heckman, J. J., Stixrud, J., and Urzua, S. (2006). The effects of cognitive and noncognitive abilities on labor market outcomes and social behavior. Journal of Labor Economics 24 (3), 411–482.
Evidence that specific skills are important across multiple sectors:
Fitzsimons, G.M., & Finkel, E.J. (2011). Outsourcing self-regulation. Psychological Science, 22(3), 369-375.
Goodman, A.; Joshi, H.; Nasim, B.; and C. Tyler (2015). Social and Emotional skills in childhood and their long-term effects on adult life: A review for the Early Intervention Foundation.
Lippman, L. H., Ryberg, R., Terzian, M., Moore, K. A., Humble, J., & McIntosh, H. (2014). Positive and protective factors in adolescent well-being. In B. Asher, F. Casas, I. Frones & J. E. Korbin (Eds.), Handbook of child well-being: Theories, Methods, and Policies in Global Perspective. New York: Springer.
National Research Council. (2012). Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century. Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills, J.W. Pellegrino and M.L. Hilton, Editors. Board on Testing and Assessment and Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
OECD (2015), Skills for Social Progress: The Power of Social and Emotional Skills, OECD Skills Studies, OECD Publishing. Retrieved from https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264226159-en.
Download related publications