Category Archives: Rethinking Skills Discourse: A new narrative

Submissions inviting the Australian government to drop ‘soft’ skills

In late 2019 the Australian Government invited the public to write submissions on:

  • Co-designing the National Skills Commission
  • Co-designing the National Careers Institute
  • Senior Secondary Pathways into Work, Further Education and Training

My three submissions each made a case for dropping the use of ‘soft’ skills when it comes to skills terminology. Specifically material was provided about:

  • The contested nature of skills discourse.
  • The problematic nature of skills discourse and in particular the inaccurate and unhelpful nature of the technical/non-technical, and ‘soft’/’hard’ distinctions.
  • The need for national leadership in using accurate, current, unbiased skills language.
  • The problematic nature of pathways language and its negative influence on VET.

You can read these submissions via these links:

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.

Be wary of reports and tools about ‘soft’ skills

You don’t have to look far to find a business or consultancy branding themselves in the marketplace with reports and tools that promote ‘soft’ skills. While ‘soft’ skills is shorthand for a collection of skills, when you look closer you can see all the reasons why this term should be banned from use.

Let’s take three examples:

These documents are given an aura of credibility. Adecco’s document is a White Paper. You can find research to back  validity and references to others’ related work.

Yet caution is needed in accepting this material at face-value.

Compare what each claims to be ‘soft’ skills. While there is some overlap, the lists vary:

Adecco: To express empathy, communicate persuasively, and seek common ground in a manner that allows groups to agree on an action plan and, more important, to feel collectively invested in its success.

Deloitte: communication, teamwork, and problem solving, as well as emotional judgement, professional ethics and global citizenship, time management.

Employment Readiness Scale: Self-Efficacy, or one’s confidence in one’s ability to manage one’s life effectively. Social Supports, or the development of a support network. Job Maintenance, or the ability to keep work, once found, particularly the ability to work effectively with others. Work History, especially the ability to identify transferable skills. Outcome Expectancy, or one’s optimism about one’s chances of success.

How do you decide if material is credible? Some details to assess if a report or tool is using credible skill terms are:

  • Is ‘soft’ skills used in inverted commas or is the expression ‘so-called’ used?
  • Is the material backed with reference to peer-reviewed material, or does the material reference the authors’ own research or primarily others who also use ‘soft’ skills?
  • Are other sources referred to who don’t use ‘soft’ skills but have had their work redefined as being about ‘soft’ skills?
  • Do the authors acknowledge that the term ‘soft’ skills is used inconsistently, and/or that there is no agreement as to what it means, yet still use the term?

Using inverted commas or ‘so-called’ are ambiguous signals. Does it mean ‘soft’ is being used in a peculiar manner, is slang, is someone else’s term? Does ‘so-called’ mean that ‘soft’ is commonly used, unsuitable, or falsely applied? None of these options add credibility to the term ‘soft’. It is ironic that users try to present a credible justification for using ‘soft’ yet undermine that credibility by using inverted commas and/or ‘so-called’.

If a resource is going to have credible value, it needs to be backed with a range of career development profession-based material, preferably peer-reviewed, that uses consistent, accurate terminology. There is growing research that points to the inadequacies of a range of skill terminology, such as skill gaps and skill mismatches, and questions the assumption that skills are generic, and can be readily transferred from one context to another. Simplistic adoption of ‘soft’ skills does not progress a more nuanced discussion of skills nor help clients identify their skills.

An illusion of wider usage is created when other writers’ work is rebadged, and misrepresented, as being about ‘soft’ skills when in fact this term is not used by them.

Users of ‘soft’ skills commonly acknowledge that this term is not used consistently, yet still opt to use the term. This is a curious choice given it undermines rather than enhances credibility.

So what can you do as a career development professional?

If your clients are to understand what skills are in demand, career practitioners, teachers, researchers, and parents need to use accurate, consistent, professional skill terms. This means dropping the use of ‘soft’, as well as ‘hard’, skills.

How to replace ‘soft’:

  • When discussing reports, tools, and research on skills, avoid adopting or repeating any use of ‘soft’ skills. Even saying “so-called ‘soft’ skills” keeps the term in circulation.
  • When discussing specific skills, use specific skill words, like communication skills, problem solving skills, interpersonal skills, so clients learn accurate skill vocabulary.
  • When grouping skills that relate to communication and interpersonal skills, use social  skills.

The words we use send invisible signals about what’s valid and legitimate, stigmatised or unimportant. The skills grouped under ‘soft’ skills are vital life skills, not to be diminished by grouping them as ‘soft’. To prepare people to effectively take part in working life, we need to drop this term and use consistent, accurate terminology that supports our clients and profession.

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.


National Careers Week: Why we should stop using ‘soft’ skills

I wrote this article on Why we should stop using ‘soft’ skills for the Careers Council of Australia’s (CICA) National Careers Week.

The articles argues that it’s time for career development practitioners, researchers, teachers, trainers, educators, employers and parents to stop using this incorrect and misleading term.

Three reasons are presented in support of dropping the use of ‘soft’ skills.

  • The term is out-of-date and confusing.
  • The term is inaccurate.
  • The term is gender-biased.

Why make life difficult for people when they are trying to identify what skills they have and will need?

Alternatives to ‘soft’ skills are:

  • When discussing specific skills, use specific skill words, like communication skills, problem solving skills.
  • When grouping skills that relate to communication and interpersonal skills, use social skills.
  • When grouping several specific, career-critical skills, use employability or transferable skills.

Please rethink what skill terms you are using and stop using ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ when talking about 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.

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.

Soft/Hard Skills: A false dichotomy

A popular distinction in the jobs/career literature is hard/soft skills.

In general usage, soft skills refer to interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, communication skills, emotions, and characteristics such as friendliness, empathy, social graces.

Hard skills refer to a person’s knowledge and occupational skills.

For example, according to this distinction, a doctor’s bedside manner comes under soft skills and their ability to diagnose illness and know what medicine to give are considered hard skills.

While the literature often refers to these skills as complementing each other, no one questions their continuing use. Here are six reasons to stop using this distinction.

1. False connotations of difficult/easy

The hard/soft distinction carries connotations of difficult/easy due to the ambiguity of the terms. There is nothing easy about dealing with people. Most managers, no matter how technically skilled and knowledgeable they are, will spend most of their time on demanding people issues. If their interpersonal skills are poor, life will be unbearable.

2. False connotations of serious/frivolous

The hard/soft distinction carries connotations of hard skills being serious and soft skills being somewhat frivolous, easily dismissed as not warranting the same attention. This built-in derogatory flavour does nothing to encourage people to take these skills seriously.

3. Employers want staff with interpersonal skills

Any list of most-wanted skills includes teamwork, communication and customer service. Some businesses choose to take people with ‘the right attitude’ and train them on the job, in technical, hard skills, in order to find quality staff. While qualifications are essential, they are useless without the ability to get along with people.

The Core Skills for Work Developmental Framework has ‘Interact with others’ as one of the three skill clusters. The Framework points out that while Skill Areas within each cluster are related to each other, ‘there is also interaction across clusters’. In other words, you can’t get work done if you can’t get along with people.

4. The skills are inseparable

There is no point having qualifications and extensive technical knowledge if you don’t also have interpersonal skills. Even on projects with huge demand for a range of technical skills, such as building a dam, if people in different trades and professions can’t talk to each other and cooperate to solve problems, the project won’t be completed.

5. Disadvantages women

Soft skills are traditionally associated with women. Women are seen as better at interpersonal matters, use language more effectively, have the emotional basis for doing soft skills better than men.

While there is some basis for this generalisation, it is neither true that all women are good at people skills, nor that all men are hopeless in this area. Women are disadvantaged by being seen as best suited to people-rich roles, which are often those that are poorly paid, offer mainly part-time work, and have few promotional opportunities.

The soft skills/women link means that men may not be considered for such female roles and can potentially get away with poor communication skills because, well, they’re men.

6. False belief soft skills can’t be learnt

Some of the literature implies, even states, that interpersonal skills are part of a person’s personality, and therefore are not subject to learning and improvement. You either have them or you don’t.

This too is a false belief. People can increase their self-awareness about how they communicate and interact and identify behaviours to incorporate into their repertoire so that they are more skilled. Yes, it takes practice, as does any behaviour that needs to become habitual. But it is learnable.

What’s the alternative?

First, stop using the hard/soft language.

Second, focus on talking about core skills, employability skills, transferable skills.

Third, treat interpersonal skills as equal in value to technical skills. I’d go so far as to say that in many cases interpersonal skills are more important than technical skills once a certain level of competence has been achieved.

Fourth, make sure the inter-relatedness of interpersonal and technical skills is explained to staff.

Fifth, be consciously aware of how soft skill talk can disadvantage women and save men from building these skills, and take action to prevent these discriminatory practices.

Sixth, Check assumptions that these skills are gender-linked. Notice messages that show women as the skilled people person and men as the people klutz. Voice objections.

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.