Nine reasons to ignore reports discussing ‘soft’ skills

Some government departments and agencies continue to rely on a single report to justify statements using the term ‘soft’ skills.

As I’ve argued in other articles, the term ‘soft’ skills has no place in contemporary skills analysis and discussion.

Let’s take the case of  Treasury’s White Paper Working Future. It justifies its use of ‘soft’ skills by referring to Deloitte’s 2017 paper Soft skills for business success. Deloitte Access Economics describes itself as: “Australia’s pre-eminent economics advisory practice and a member of Deloitte’s global economics group.” Note that views are informed primarily by one discipline – economics.

While this document highlights some useful information, it’s analysis carries at least nine flaws.

  1. The analysis is biased by a predetermined use this term. The report was prepared for DeakinCo, a commercial arm of Deakin University, which badges multiple “cutting edge” training courses under the heading ‘soft’ skills. The report includes reference to these programs. If you’re asked to analyse ‘soft’ skills, then you’re unlikely to consider other options.

2. Employers don’t ask for ‘soft’ skills. The report analyses the demand for a range of skills, including teamwork, time management and communication skills. The gap between supply and demand for these and other skills is reported. But employers don’t ask for ‘soft’ skills. Job advertisements list the specific skills sought. It doesn’t progress understanding of the labour market to lump a range of skills together under a heading that is not used in practice. The report goes on to quote figures about the dearth of applicant resumes listing ‘soft’ skills. Are the authors seriously suggesting applicants include an actual listing for ‘soft’ skills even though employers don’t use this term in job listings?

3. There is no agreed definition of ‘soft’ skills. Skills language is contested, confusing, and inconsistently applied. The report includes a section making a case for the importance of a wide range of skills beyond purely technical skills. This is partly backed by reference to a World Economic Forum 2015 paper which classifies critical skills into three groups: Foundational Literacies, Character qualities, which includes leadership and social and cultural awareness, both of which could be argued involve significant skills, and Competencies, which includes critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration.

While there is some overlap in what is listed as ‘soft’ skills, there is no agreed list nor sound case for what is on a list. Such skill groupings don’t add to clarity.

4. Inadequate basis for choosing to use ‘soft’ skills. The report lists various definitions of non-technical skills, including employability skills, transferable skills, competencies, and ‘soft’ skills, which is claimed is used by the business community. After pointing to the variety and overlap in this terminology, the choice to use ‘soft’ skills is then justified by saying: “For the sake of consistency, this report will use the term ‘soft skills’ to describe a set of non-technical skills – like communication skills, emotional judgement, problem solving and digital literacy – as set out above.” Consistency with what? Presumably the starting point underpinning the reason for this report. (see point 1)

5. Ignores the technical side of ‘soft’ skills. Most discussions of skills juxtapose technical with non-technical skills. While historically this may have been a useful distinction, it is no longer valid. While clearly there a roles that are primarily technical and/or technology-based, most roles use technology and some so-called ‘soft’ skills involve using technical skills. A skilled presenter understands and effectively employs the crafts of stage management, voice usage, and supporting technology. While a fitness instructor may draw on ‘technical’ knowledge to prepare a fitness class, (such as knowledge of a range of exercises that cater for different levels of fitness and different parts of the body, safety issues, how to use equipment), if they can’t model the exercises accurately, explain them clearly, and correct others’ performance, then their ability to fulfil the role is significantly diminished.

6. Ignores the interrelatedness of skills. The report recognises that: “The boundaries between professions and industries are dissolving” but then segues into transferable skills rather than explore the interrelatedness of skills. What the ‘soft’ skills narrative ignores is that most technical roles require a range of so-called ‘soft’ skills for effective performance. Look at any job listing and there will be some component of problem solving, teamwork or team leadership, communication, collaboration, relationship management, and more. While skills can be separated and categorised, many of today’s problems are complex and demand high order social skills to progress them. Consider the sophisticated diplomacy needed for geopolitical issues, the demands of explaining threatening weather events such as cyclones and bushfires, or the interpersonal skills needed in caring for people with complex needs.

7. Employers aren’t held to account for their recruitment practices. The report refers to survey findings about employers finding applicants lack employability skills. Yet digging deeper into how they arrive at this conclusion doesn’t get mentioned (here or elsewhere). What doesn’t get explored is whether any of this lack is due to how skills are assessed or employers’ unwillingness to provide training.

8. The diversity and range of skills are ignored. While it may be useful to know that communications skills “remain in most short supply”, this is too general to be helpful. Communication is a broad label that covers many skills, ranging across basic literacy, to customer interaction, persuading people to cooperate, to formal interrogation, and much more. Lumping all these together does little to inform us about actual skill supply and demand.

9. Calling some occupations “soft skill intensive” won’t help fill them. It is well documented that occupations in the care sector face strong growth. Many reports, including the White Paper, document the many issues with filling jobs in this sector. Labelling these occupations as “soft skill intensive” ignores the range of skills involved, some of which are technical, and reinforces the diminished status of this work. People doing what would primarily be deemed a technical role, could equally be called “soft skill intensive” if full account was taken of the skills used.

What all this means is that using ‘soft’ skills is insulting, inaccurate, unhelpful. It does not provide informed thinking and analysis, and does not foster a helpful way to progress labour market issues.

These are nine sound reasons for not using ‘soft’ skills and certainly not quoting reports that rely on this term.

How to take ‘soft’ skills out of circulation

By continuing to use seriously flawed language like ‘soft’ skills, we do everyone a disservice. Without accurate skills language, people struggle to identify their skills and how they might apply them in the workplace. Workforce challenges, like skills shortages, will continue so long as some skills are privileged over others.

We need to take ‘soft’ skills out of circulation. There are alternatives to using ‘soft’ skills, including:

  • When discussing specific skills, use specific skill words, like communication skills, problem-solving skills, interpersonal skills.
  • When grouping skills that relate to working with people, use social or interpersonal skills and use this term consistently.
  • When discussing or referencing other reports and research on skills, avoid adopting or repeating any use of ‘soft’ skills. Even saying “so-called ‘soft’ skills” keeps the term in circulation.

Finally, it’s worth keeping in mind comments made by Dr Anna Moro (Associate Dean, Humanities, McMaster University), in her article How a humanities degree will serve you in a disruptive economy:

“I don’t know why we call them “soft skills.”

They’re certainly not easy to learn, although they are as valuable and necessary as the skills doctors use in surgery, bankers use to assess risk and physicists use to split atoms.

Communication, observation, empathy and logical thinking: These precious and frequently undervalued skills have everyday names.

I prefer to call them “essential skills,” because we all need them every day, though we don’t always use them well. They are the foundational skills that allow us to learn and live and work productively with other people. They are the skills that determine our chances of succeeding. They are the skills of leadership.”

For other articles on skills terminology, visit Free Articles – Career Development Practitioners – Selection Criteria


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.