Soft skills give youth a step up – both on and off the job

Q&A: Clare Ignatowski authors a new report, “What Works in Soft Skills Development for Youth Employment”

October 18, 2017

When young people enter the workforce, technical skills or education alone are not enough to ensure their success. They also need the “soft skills” that will help them excel on the job – and in other aspects of their lives.

The Youth Employment Funders Group, a learning network of over 20 public and private sector funders and multi-lateral organizations, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, The Mastercard Foundation, the Inter-American Development Bank/MIF, and the International Labour Organization – commissioned a new report, “What Works in Soft Skills Development for Youth Employment” to build a more coherent understanding of soft skills and how to foster them in young people.

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Clare Ignatowski, Senior Technical Advisor for Youth and Systems Thinking at Creative Associates International.

Clare Ignatowski, Ph.D., Senior Technical Advisor for Youth and Systems Thinking at Creative Associates International, authored the report, which was released Sept. 30 at the Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit in Washington, D.C.

Ignatowski says that with the report, the group hopes to rally funders, development organizations, businesses and country governments around the importance of soft skills and build a common terminology to describe them. The report also gives recommendations on how to move forward so that youth around the world can acquire qualities and abilities that will serve them throughout their lives.

Ignatowski shares some of the highlights of the report, which can be read in full here.

How do we define soft skills?

Ignatowski: Soft skills are a mix of skills, attitudes, behaviors, personal qualities and mindsets that individuals use to be successful across different contexts in work and life. It’s about skills that are important for navigating and making decisions and working well with other people to get work done and be successful in life.

The five skills that were found to have the most evidence for youth workforce success are:

  • Positive self-concept
  • Self-control
  • Communication
  • Social skills
  • Higher-order thinking, which is problem solving, critical thinking and decision making

These skills are important not just for workforce success but for success in many different domains of life.

Why is there a need for a better understanding and cohesion around soft skills in development?

Ignatowski: I think that because these skills are so foundational, they kind of crop up in all different points in the life span of a young person. So it’s best if they are incorporated into early childhood education, if they’re practiced within families and then integrated with academic education. And also they’re really critical for transition to work and successful performance on the job.

Also there’s a rising crescendo of employers saying that these skills are:

  1. Important for productivity and
  2. Are most lacking in the labor market.

So especially in country contexts where there is a very traditional, teacher-centered kind of pedagogy and curriculum that’s rigid, it’s very difficult for young people to develop these skills. But at the same time, their potential employers are saying these are these skills they need.

Additionally, there’s rising evidence that self-concept, sense of self-efficacy, engagement and ability to work well with others are vital to resisting violent extremism and also for surviving in communities that have a lot of crime and violence. So these are important skills not just for getting a job and working, but for thriving in difficult circumstances.

What are the major recommendations of the report?

Ignatowski: We made recommendations in five different domains, and there’s a number of different dimensions in each. The first one is building coherence around soft skills. We’re not saying that soft skills are the only skills that young people need; these skills need to be integrated with technical skills as well as academic skills. This report has also made an effort to bring coherence around terminology.

The second recommendation is around reform efforts. That is, changing the mindset across the whole system – the education system and the workforce system, including how employers are training and supervising young people, and how families are supporting their youth. So we’re seeing the need to create a virtuous cycle with these different context reinforcing soft skills development.

The third recommendation is around essential partnerships. This involves looking at the demand side and what kind of skills employers say they need and working with them in the work context to have opportunities for young people to develop soft skills. Also partnerships with civil society organizations like Junior Achievement or after-school programs that are actually better situated and have innovative programming that supports soft skills development  Scaling them up often means partnering with formal educations systems which are looking for more active and innovative pedagogies.

The fourth recommendation is around improving the quality of education.  This means investing in preparing adults, teachers, youth workers – any adult in the community who’s working with young people in understanding these skills and how to best support their development in young people.

And the final area is the critical domain of assessment and evaluation, including promoting and investing in more rigorous and consistent measures of soft skills. It’s been very difficult to measure soft skills because this has generally been done through self-report surveys, which are not very relevant or consistent. We can use more triangulated data sources and more performance-based measures. Furthermore, the focus should not be only on the individual but also on the institutional practices and cultures that surround young people and that either nurture or inhibit soft skills development.

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Soft skills like problem solving and communication can help youth find jobs and succeed in the workplace. Photo by Erick Gibson.

What are your hopes in terms of soft skills development in the future?

Ignatowski: Hopefully we’ll move beyond arguing about terminology – soft skills versus life skills versus work-readiness skills, etc. – and start to harmonize our terminology and invest in being able to develop more rigorous assessment tools so we can build the evidence base for what works in soft skills.

Mainstreaming of soft skills development in both general secondary education and technical and vocational education systems is also critical and is part of modernizing education and training systems for the 21st century.

This report is issued by a donor-led group, but the donors are very aware that these reforms are going to take the efforts of many different partners including families, education systems, the private sector, local and international NGOs, as well as local governments and young people themselves. Basically there’s a role for everybody. It’s a big-tent effort.

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