The Need for Soft Skills

Soft skills are now widely considered to be essential for employability, wellbeing, reducing inequality, and more.

But they are in short supply.

“The larger message is that soft skills predict success in life, that they causally produce that success, and that programs that enhance soft skills have an important place in an effective portfolio of public policies.”

James Heckman and Tim Kautz, 2012. “Hard evidence on soft skills,” (National Bureau of Economic Research)

Why are soft skills essential?

“Soft skills are an asset that neither employers nor employees can ignore.”

James Caan CBE 2015

Research from the Sutton Trust (2017) finds that 94% of employers say soft skills are as or more important than academic qualifications, with one third saying they are even more important.

“It is the ability to show flexibility, creativity, and teamwork that are increasingly becoming just as valuable, if not more valuable, than academic knowledge and technical skills,”  Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust.

Independent research and policy documents from a wide range of sources show that soft skills shortages, particularly among young people, are a serious problem. Organisations who have expressed this concern include the CBI, the National Association of Colleges and Employers; the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development; Ernst & Young; LearnDirect; the British Chambers of Commerce; Business in the Community; the National Careers Service; Cisco; Deloitte; Barclays Bank; and MacDonalds, to name a few.

“By 2020, more than half a million workers will be held back by a lack of soft skills.” Development Economics 2015

In their 2012 assessment, Hays, the global recruiter, showed that there is a common perception that candidates do not have a sufficient standard of soft skills; in 2016 “the majority of employers report worsening skill shortages.”

“Soft skills are the ones that our clients globally say are in most demand. For anyone considering their career options these are the skills to focus on.”

Hays 2015

“Soft skills matter more than cognitive ability for general mental wellbeing (such as greater life satisfaction, mental health and wellbeing).”

Skills for Life And Work, 2015

There is widespread concern about young people’s mental health; the proportion of children and young people with a mental health condition has grown six-fold in England over two decades. The age group with the biggest increases are young people aged 16-24, with young people in England almost 10 times more likely to report a long-standing mental health condition in 2014 than in 1995 (5.9% compared to 0.6%).

Research from University College London and the Anna Freud Centre (Journal of Adolescent Health 2015) found that problems such as low self-confidence, mild anxiety and deep unhappiness — all risk factors for more serious mental illnesses — rose in girls by 55 per cent from 2009 to 2014 (while similar factors were unchanged in boys).

These findings are echoed in research from NHS Digital (September 2016), which shows that young women aged 16 – 24 are now a “high-risk group”, 3 times more likely as men to be suffering from depression and anxiety.

However, there is a known underdiagnosis of men’s mental health problems, which often manifest in other ways, such as drug and alcohol dependency, anti-social or criminal behaviour, and suicide – the most common cause of death in men under 45.

Soft skills improve all young people’s abilities to make positive life choices, and to develop healthy relationships.

Research undertaken of our programmes’ impact (see chart) showed that as young people understand more about the value of soft skills and how to develop them, they also experience an increased sense of preparedness for work and optimism about life. Optimism has a significant impact on wellbeing and mental health (US National Library of Medicine, 2010).

“Soft skills development is extremely important and can make all the difference to a young person’s life. Yet it’s very difficult for us to deliver them within the regular curriculum.”

Naz Deen, Careers Advisor, Haringey 6th Form Centre

“Developing soft skills is very important, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Mark Boleat, former Policy Chairman, City of London Corporation

The Sutton Trust research shows that less than half (46%) of students from disadvantaged backgrounds participate in extra-curricular activities, which can provide soft skills development, compared to 66% from better off families.

“Attitude and aspirations account for 22% of the rich/poor gap at GCSE attainment.” Chowdry, Crawford and Goodman

Research undertaken by The Prince’s Trust and HSBC highlights teachers views:

  • 45% of teachers felt that a lack of soft skills was one of the most likely factors to hold students back in life
  • 91% of teachers think schools should do more to help pupils develop teamwork and communication skills
  • 31% of teachers think soft skills are key to their pupils’ life chances rather than “good grades” (18%).
  • 46% think self-confidence of disadvantaged students is lower than that of other students

“Soft skills are associated with positive outcomes for young people, such as financial stability in adulthood and reduced involvement in criminality.”

L Gutman & I Schoon. The Impact Of Non-Cognitive Skills On Outcomes For Young People 2013

Developing soft skills also reduces risk factors associated with youth crime such as:

  • Low achievement
  • Adolescent mental health problems
  • Becoming under / unemployed
  • Problem behaviour
  • Being abused
  • Young parenthood
  • Poverty

“While young people are painfully aware of the importance of getting good grades and under incredible pressure to achieve them, this report shows that the life and character skills considered key to success in their working lives are at risk of being overlooked.”

Dame Martina Milburn, Chief Executive, The Prince’s Trust