Focus on Soft skills, employability and education


Sometimes referred to as employability, generic, transferable, or more recently, 21st century skills, soft skills encompass a range of non-technical skills (as opposed to technical, job-specific skills) that, increasingly, employers require in potential employees. These skills include communication skills, teamwork and collaboration skills, creativity, problem solving and analytical skills, entrepreneurial and digital skills. With the world of work changing, the demand and need for soft skills and their impact on education has become a significant focus for governments and industries around the world.

This issue of Focus on... presents a snapshot of research that explores soft skills for the 21st century, soft skills and vocational education and training (VET), and examples of soft skill teaching and learning practices.

Soft skills for the 21st century

The world of work is changing, driven by significant technological, economic, demographic, environmental and social shifts, defined in some of the literature as 'megatrends' (Tomorrow's digitally enabled workforce and Future skills and training: a practical resource to help identify future skills and training). These changes emerge through the creation of new industries and the growth and decline of others. Change within jobs will continue as more tasks, particularly those that are routine-based, become automated and we work ever more closely with machines.

These economic and labour market shifts influence and drive changes in the demand for skills, as explored in the recently released NCVER paper Skills for a global future. The paper summarises recent research that shows employers are increasingly asking for soft skills. However it is interesting to note that employers have long sought employability skills, as research published in 2003 and 2004 show: The generic skills debate and Employability skills for the future.

Based on analysis in Internet job postings: employability skills - infographic, employers across all occupations place a great deal of importance on effective communication. This research found that between 2014-17 the top ten employability skills in order of employers' emphasis in internet job postings were communication skills, organisational skills, writing, planning, detail orientation, teamwork/collaboration, problem-solving, time management, research and computer digital skills.

Future skills and training: a practical resource to help identify future skills and training also uses the internet to identify skills to look forward and consider the skills expected to be required in the future. Based on review of digital and social media sources, as well as traditional literature sources, this work identifies the following employability skills: foundational skills, such as literacy and numeracy, and including digital and financial literacy; skills for collaborating, such as communication, teamwork, relationship management; skills for learning and adapting; entrepreneurial skills; analytical skills; skills for adding value, such as creativity; non-automatable skills, such as empathy, sociability, teamwork, social cultural awareness; and social platform skills.

More on this...

Soft skills and VET

One of VET's biggest advantages over higher education is that students undertake training that specifically prepares them for employment. While skills for vocations (technical skills) are evident in VET training packages, employers are also looking for graduates who possess soft skills to ensure their successful participation in the workforce. Various frameworks relating to core skills have been developed (e.g. Core Skills for Work Developmental Framework), however the VET sector continues to look at ways to incorporate employability or soft skills into training delivery.

VET is well placed to become a leader in equipping students with soft skills to meet industry needs. In VET: securing skills for growth, the authors detail how VET, by being an adaptive and agile sector, is vital in delivering key skills Australia needs now and for the future. VET can quickly respond to Australia's skill requirements by increasing the delivery of courses in required industry areas as demand rapidly increases. Future skills and training: a practical resource to help identify future skills and training backs this argument highlighting that the value of the VET system for teaching soft skills lies firstly in its capacity to be fluid and secondly, in its integration with industry. In Australia, industry needs are addressed through industry involvement in VET planning and delivery specifically via training package development.

Integration of transferable skills in TVET curriculum, teaching-learning, and assessment presents approaches and issues with integrating transferable skills (also referred to as life, soft or employability skills) into technical and vocational education and training (TVET) in Southeast Asian countries. While soft skills benefit students by helping develop their career, employers are looking to recruit 'work-ready' employees with a well-rounded skill set and to some degree soft skills are now perceived as more crucial than technical skills. Suggestions for integrating soft skills in vocational training include creating a conducive, holistic learning environment, ensuring teacher training includes a focus on how to deliver soft skills, and integrating formal assessment of soft skills into the certification process.

Learning to be employable: practical lessons from research into developing character looks at the way character impacts on employability skills - by character the authors mean those attributes often called soft, non-cognitive or 21st century skills. While vocational training has been known to make students employable, employers in the UK believe students do not have all the skills needed when they leave education. Considering whether soft skills can be taught, this research presents approaches for developing employability in students and in measuring attainment of those skills. The report notes that while education does build behaviours and attitudes, a more strategic approach, with greater specificity, could be explored in pedagogy to enhance character, and thus employability skills.

More on this...

Examples of soft skill teaching and learning practices

Developing soft skill in Malaysian polytechnics presents findings of a study on lecturers' perceptions of the soft skills taught, learned, assessed and applied through the Malaysian polytechnics Industrial Training Soft Skills (ITSS) module. The ITSS module was developed in response to the need for a better skilled workforce and designed to develop specific soft skills in students at polytechnics prior to undertaking industrial training. The module incorporates a mixture of soft skills theory and practical project assignments, with the industrial training that commences on completion of the module providing the real-world context in which to apply the soft skills learned. Another paper, Soft skills in polytechnic: students' perspectives, reports on students' perceptions of the importance of soft skills training through the ITSS module, assessed before and after undertaking the industrial training.

In Solved!: making the case for collaborative problem-solving the authors identify collaborative problem-solving as an essential skill required for the modern workplace. Focusing on upper primary and secondary education with perspectives and research from higher and further education contexts, the report discusses findings from literature research and provides examples from international programs that teach collaborative problem solving. One example includes the PELARS Project, which explores and measures collaborative problem-solving through open-ended design tasks in STEM education.

Key skills for the 21st century: an evidence-based review considers the key 21st century skills needed by future generations of workers and how these skills are or could be taught, measured and assessed in Australian schools. For the purposes of their research, the authors specify these key skills as critical thinking, creativity, metacognition, problem solving, collaboration, motivation, self-efficacy, conscientiousness, and grit or perseverance. The report reviews current research, policies and thinking related to this topic and outlines approaches taken by different countries in incorporating these key skills in their school systems, including teaching and learning practices.

The report 2016 good practice report: work integrated learning (WIL), provides case studies of good practice in work-integrated learning (WIL) in 13 Australian and two overseas universities. Part of the report examines the benefits of WIL, identifying that WIL can contribute significantly to 'a range of educational and personal outcomes including the development of generic/professional skills, enhanced employability and work readiness' (p. 12). Deakin University is provided as an example of imbedding employability skills in its approach through the development of a Graduate Capabilities Framework with learning outcomes that include critical thinking, problem solving, self-management and teamwork.

More on this...

Opinion pieces and news items

Developing soft skills helps create well-rounded students [Malaysia]
(Source: Borneo Post Online, August 2018)

Personal qualities count in today's graduate market [UK]
(Source: The Guardian, July 2018)

How a humanities degree will serve you in a disruptive economy [US]
(Source: The Conversation, June 2018)

United Kingdom: work experience enhances employability skills
(Source: Cedefop, March 2018)

The changing workplace: what skills will you need in the next 10 years? [Australia]
(Source: TAFE courses, October 2017)


Published: August 2018