Why ‘soft’ skills should be excluded from skills discourse

Most days we read a new report or commentary on the state of work skills in the 21st century. Discussing what skills workers needs is not a new topic. Yet over the decades the discourse has become a confusing jumble of terminology. Multiple professions, business, industry, researchers and academics, and governments, use different terms to refer to the same skill sets, categorise groups of skills under various headings, and try to simplify discussions by using popular terms.

One of these popular terms is ‘soft’, a single syllable, easy-to-say term that is used to refer primarily to communication and interpersonal skills, as well as a whole range of other skills that are generally regarded as ‘non-technical’. While using ‘soft’ skills in reports and media commentary may be easier to express and digest, any use of ‘soft’ skills should be excluded from the skills discourse because it does more harm than good.

Why should ‘soft’ skills be excluded? Because:

  • the terms ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ are not precise, agreed, technical terms when applied to skills; and
  • the use of the term ‘soft’ skills when referring particularly to communication and interpersonal skills is unhelpful to achieving wide understanding of the value and future importance of these skills.

Multiple reports point to the increasing importance of social skills for future work roles. To help people understand what social skills mean, writers of all backgrounds need to adopt alternatives to the use of ‘soft’ skills. This revised practice includes:

  • avoiding substituting ‘soft’ skills for established skill terms, such as employability skills;
  • where an umbrella term is needed for communication and interpersonal skills [both of which cover a range of specific skills], options are social skills or people skills;
  • where other skills are referred to that are deemed to be ‘non-hard skills’ or ‘non-technical’, these skills should be listed without categorising them as ‘soft’ skills.

Changing practice to remove the use of ‘soft’ skills will:

  • remove an unhelpful expression from skills literature, an expression that is unclear, inconsistently used, ambiguous.
  • increase consistency in referencing communication and interpersonal skills.
  • increase acceptance of the value of social skills and the need for all people to develop them, regardless of their work preferences.

Let’s look at the case for excluding ‘soft’ skills in more detail.

1. The importance of consistent professional terminology

Terminology is part of the special knowledge of a professional. Carefully defined terminology standardises the means of communication, enables people in a profession to communicate clearly, reducing ambiguity and increasing clarity.

The quality of professional terminology will affect knowledge representation and transfer, impacting research, policy, marketing, training, education, products and services.

A term like ‘soft’ skills, that has no precise, agreed, unambiguous meaning, is unhelpful to any profession.

2. The Career Development Profession recognises the importance of communication and interpersonal skills.

The Career Development Profession recognises the importance of communication and interpersonal skills in both its Professional Standards and in career management competencies, outlined in the Australian Blueprint for Career Development [ABCD].

These documents refer to specific skills and recognise the importance of communication and interpersonal skills across the lifespan. Nowhere are these skills referred to as ‘soft’ skills.

3. Research identifies the growing importance of communication and interpersonal skills for future work

Both international and Australian research points to the continuing importance of communication skills, and the increasing need for higher-order interpersonal skills. Plus, these social skills are the ones more likely to resist automation.

Examples of this research are:

The Foundation for Young Australians’ report The New Work Smarts suggests that future workers will spend less time on routine tasks and more time with people and getting value from technology.

A report to Queensland TAFE explored what skills the national economy will need in the future. The findings are ‘consistent with other research which suggests that interaction and social skills will have growing importance in future work.’ [p. 20]

Everyone, across the lifespan, needs to value communication and interpersonal skills, see their relevance regardless of work choices, and expend effort in building these skills. Clear, unambiguous terms will aid this understanding.

4. Skills discourse is problematic

There is a confusing range of terms used in skills discourse and social skills [shorthand for communication and interpersonal skills] has a problematic positioning within this discourse due to the use of terms like ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills.

The use of the term ‘soft’ skills in professional literature, research and government reports is problematic for several reasons.

  • It is used unquestioningly, without considering its appropriateness, accuracy, validity or clarity.
  • There is no agreement about what it means beyond anything that is not ‘technical’.
  • Its use with inverted commas [i.e. ‘soft’ skills] is ambiguous as to whether this term is used in a special way, is questionable, is a short cut, or is being used colloquially.
  • It is falsely contrasted with ‘hard skills’ on the basis that these are observable, learnable and measurable, qualities claimed [inaccurately] as not shared by ‘soft’ skills.
  • ‘Soft’ skills are not the preserve of girls and women: they are not female or feminine skills. Perpetuating this association reduces the perceived value and relevance of these skills to boys and men.
  • ‘Soft’ skills are incorrectly perceived as being ‘touchy-feely’, less demanding than other skills and knowledge. Many occupations are based substantially on the use of sophisticated social skills: nursing, teaching, pharmacy, law, training, retail, aged care, to name a few. Demonstrating social skills takes dedicated training and years of practice, backed by knowledge and research.
  • Research shows employers request communication skills above all other skills. Employers rarely use the term ‘soft’ skills [but may when researchers put words in their mouths], and it is rarely used in job advertisements. If job seekers are to understand what skills are needed, consistent use of terminology is needed, without muddying the discourse with unhelpful terms like ‘soft’ and ‘hard’.
  • The use of ‘hard’ skills as a label for technical and STEM skills is also unhelpful, again due to its ambiguity and lack of precision. Many work situations need the application of both technical and interpersonal skills. Apprentices learning a skilled trade need to be able to work in a team and communicate with co-workers, bosses, customers, which may include aspects of persuading, negotiating, presenting, explaining, to name but a few of the many elements of communicating.
  • On a wider scale, people need to understand that communicating is much more than flicking a text message or email to someone. As writer Hugh Mackay has pointed out in several of his books, we are social creatures. Yet recent developments are undermining our ability to live well with each other. In his most recent book Australia Reimagined, Mackay says: ‘We are more socially fragmented, more anxious, more depressed, more overweight, more medicated, deeper in debt and increasingly addicted – whether to our digital devices, drugs, pornography or ‘stuff’.’ For all our sakes, it’s time to dump using ‘soft’ skills.
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.