soft skills
Soft Skills will Make or Break Your Career
Underrated soft skills are the foundation for a successful career in the next generation of jobs.
By Akustina Morni, IOE Adviser
Soft Skills will Make or Break Your Career
Peggy Klaus,

author of The Hard Truth about Soft Skills, has a point: soft skills get little respect.

From the International Labour Organization to the International Monetary Fund and beyond, there are no shortage of studies on the Future of Work and its impact on work, employment and on society. Quite often their focus is on how reskilling, upskilling and lifelong learning can mitigate the negative effects and challenges of the future of work. However, the rising importance of soft skills is completely absent from these assessments.

What are soft skills? How are they different to hard skills? References to these types of skills varies. Some refer to them as foundational skills, technical skills, human skills, and many others. Can this cause some confusion? Definitely. Despite these different terminologies though, let’s refer to them as soft skills and hard skills.

Early references to soft skills go back to the 1970s which included a definition in the US Army, where a soldier would need hard skills to read a map, and soft skills to make a decision after reading the map. Therefore, both hard skills and soft skills are needed to effectively execute a task or job.

Soft skills such as critical thinking, communication and complex problem solving are underrated. According to LinkedIn data, there are at least 50,000 professional skills in the world. Out of all of these, the top 5 soft skills companies are looking for the most in 2019 are:

Time management

… in this order.

And interestingly, the skills needed by employers do not remain static. Soft skills are constantly evolving, as demonstrated in the below chart, comparing the skills needed in 1972 and the required skills anticipated (by WEF) for 2020.

The recently published joint study by the International Organisation of Employers and the International Labour Organization surveyed 500 companies globally on the future of skills. We found that employers are looking for quite different skills now in new recruits compared to 3 years ago – 70% (Brazil), 66% (India), 65% (Germany) and 61% (USA).

But why should we care about soft skills?
According to the World Bank report, machines replace workers most easily when it comes to routine tasks that are codifiable. If this is theoretically true, then soft skills are the workers’ ‘protection’ against the risk of losing jobs. Why? Because machines have yet to codify complex, human, soft skills.


In the workplace ‘soft skills’ were centered around being a good dutiful employee:

  1. Deliver excellent Customer Service
  2. Adapt to your workplace
  3. Please your manager
  4. Learn and know the skills of your job

Fry & Whitmore 1972


Top 10 Skills:

  1. Complex Problem Solving
  2. Critical Thinking
  3. Creativity
  4. People Management
  5. Coordinating with others
  6. Emotional Intelligence
  7. Judgement and Decision Making
  8. Service Orientation
  9. Negotiation
  10. Cognitive Flexibility

That’s not the only reason why we should care about soft skills. Two out of three children who are in primary school today will work in a new job type that does not exist yet. It makes more sense, strategically, to prepare future generations with strong soft skills as it is impossible now, or at any stage, to forecast or predict the kind of hard skills needed in the immediate or long-term future.

Another reason why we should care is that the skills gap is widening. The IOE/ILO survey found that it is becoming harder for companies to recruit people with the skills needed – 63% of Malaysian companies are struggling to hire people with the skills needed, in Bolivia 60% of companies are struggling, some 50% are in South Africa and 47% in China.

The lack of relevant skills for the world of work is already creating hiring problems even at entry-level positions (40% of employers noted lack of skills as the main reason). We don’t need more data to be convinced that this is a big problem. And it is a problem for all for us. Employers. Workers. Governments. Therefore, we all should care about developing and strengthening soft skills.

Making soft skills central
One always cautions against one solution to fit all situations. However, research has shown that the following actions, when taken at the right time within the right context, can work:

  1. Positive engagement with employer organisations in your country
    Employer organisations represent the interests of the private sector and depending on the national circumstance, can be in the form of a Chamber of Commerce and Industry or a business federation.

    Employer organisations are the closest to the labour market, understand what the private sector needs in the country, region or local area, and provide top guidance on social and labour issues. They have access to the latest data on skills needs and, in many cases, work side by side with recruitment agencies. A national skills mapping exercise would not be complete and effective without inputs from national employer organisations.

  2. The promotion of lifelong learning
    Proactive learning should not necessarily stop when school ends. In fact, when one thinks about it, lifelong learning (LLL) is no longer optional. LLL is to do with the ongoing, voluntary and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for personal and professional reasons, also known as learning from ‘cradle to grave’. It is different to traditional learning 50-60 years ago.

    The unfortunate reality is… a ‘job for life’ is scarce these days. Workers nowadays need more than just a single degree or school certificate. There needs to be a continuous effort and motivation to reskill and upskill oneself, not just for employability’s sake, but also for social inclusion and personal satisfaction in learning something new. There are only two countries in the world which have institutionalised LLL in their labour policies: France and Singapore. Singapore was dubbed by the WEF as the most ‘future ready’ country in the world. Could this be more than sheer coincidence?

  3. Reforming the education system
    Youth unemployment is on the rise and there are no signs of this abating. More than 63 million youth today do not have a job. The good news is that, based on the joint survey published by the International Organisation of Employers and the International Labour Organization (ILO), 72% of employers would welcome changes to make it easier to play a more active role in developing skills by influencing educational systems. It is just a matter of governments inviting employers, through employer organisations, to give their views on what is needed by the labour market. This is a crucial approach to address the problems of skills mismatches and gaps.
  4. Ensuring kindergarten teachers receive good salaries
    Acquiring soft skills naturally start at a very young age, and it is important for children to acquire these skills effectively, in preparation for not just the workplace, but for life. And in most cases, who are the first people they meet outside the home, other than family? They are the teachers at kindergarten, the creche, or pre-school institutions.

    It would be remiss of us to ignore the important role that kindergarten teachers play in the child’s skills development. Soft skills start there, where children spend a lot of time during the week, and without giving these teachers any incentives to guide children on basic skills such as manners, communications, child conflict resolution and others, parents and guardians will need to look at other ways to teach these skills.

  5. No entity can do it alone
    Like many global issues, there is a need for regular effective coordination efforts. The governments, workers and employers all need to act. This is where the ILO has shown its worth; and this is where ILO tripartite cooperation works best. What needs to expand is the political will to make this coordination a reality.
  6. And just as important as soft skills is the attitude towards work
    Your attitude is a form of expression of yourself. You can choose to be happy, positive and optimistic, or you can choose to be pessimistic, suspicious and critical, with a negative outlook on your workday. A positive attitude helps you cope better under stressful situations at work, and in fact, helps you to acquire the soft skills needed. A positive attitude to embrace new technologies and techniques is very much valued by employers.

    The IOE is ready to embark on a major project in 2019 to help its members navigate through the fast-changing skills needs by looking at governance, anticipation and development. Watch out for this space.

    Let’s show more respect for soft skills. And let’s work together to develop the skills of today to meet the needs of tomorrow.