Soft Skills: Anything but Soft

Carinne Deeds, AYPF Senior Policy Associate

I recently stumbled upon Andy Calkins’ 2015 blog post on the outdated terms “non-cognitive” and “soft skills.” The post was a reflection on his time spent at last year’s SXSWedu conference, during which he heard the terms used numerous times, despite the groans of dissatisfaction that came along with them. Having just returned from this year’s SXSWedu conference, I must say, not much has changed. We still dislike those terms and the way they reflect (or don’t reflect) the skills needed to thrive in the 21st century. Yet we still, begrudgingly, use them.

As education is not always at the top of the list of “cutting edge” fields, it was exciting and carine-quotequite inspiring to see so much innovation and momentum in the education space. It was evident, however, that although we’ve made progress in some areas like technology and instruction, we still have a long way to go in others. The terms “non-cognitive” and “soft skills” have increased in ubiquity, yet the distaste for the words has become ubiquitous as well. Critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, grit, leadership, decision-making – these skills indubitably require a level of cognitive function, so the term “non-cognitive” is a misnomer. There’s also nothing “soft” about them. In fact, the implication that skills like grit and problem solving are “soft” is counter to the idea (and evidence) that these skills are just as (if not more) critical to success as other “hard” skills like algebra and reading comprehension.

Another striking takeaway from SXSW was that regardless of the words we use to describe these skills, we are talking about them a lot, and not just with regards to education. In both education and workforce-themed sessions, and almost every session in between, concepts like decision making, critical thinking, and teamwork were infused in the dialogue. These skills, and the terms that define them, are perhaps the ultimate connector of the education and workforce fields. Why, then, do we continually struggle to describe them? Is the movement to find a better descriptor for these competencies really a discussion about language? Or is it a reflection of a larger philosophical and cultural shift in the way we think about these skills? Perhaps it’s both, but I would argue that perhaps we should focus on these skills as being absolutely necessary to succeed in adult life – the essential bridge between education and the workforce.

Despite our attempts to better connect these two worlds, it appears there really is a divide between them. Although much progress has been made to bridge the college and career divide, most traditional schools still operate within an unadaptable structure and culture that developed over many decades, with relatively rigid definitions of what school and learning “should” look like. In these instances, our 20th century education system is out of sync with the realities of the 21st century workforce. This means that often when students complete high school or college, we send them off into the workforce and expect them to suddenly be competent members of this new environment, despite our inability to draw connections between the world they are leaving and the world they’re entering. This is where these essential skills come in, and perhaps why it’s so important we stop trivializing them by calling them “soft” or “non-cognitive” – as if they’re second rate to being able to diagram a sentence.

We have seen some success in schools that prioritize this deeper, more comprehensive type of learning. As Mr. Calkins stated, “schools that show promise in building the whole continuum of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills are doing so through deliberate integration across their students’ entire learning experience.” We’ve also seen success in out-of-school experiences like internships and afterschool learning programs – environments in which these skills are utilized in both an educational and a practical capacity.

Given the importance of these skills in all of these settings, and many others, our language should be reflective of their 21st century applicability. I can’t say I know what the ideal descriptor should be, though I believe the terms agency, employer-desiredsocial-emotional skillsand 21st century skills are all superior to terms we’ve used in the past. I also don’t think a language change is enough to bring the education system up to speed with the 21st century workforce. What I do know, however, is that if we can call these skills something that conveys both their necessity and their wide applicability, we will be taking an essential step in the right direction.

Carinne Deeds is a Senior Policy Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.