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Soft skills are hard: A review of the literature

This study provided a systematic review of the academic and “grey” literature on “soft” skills in Canada. A key word search was used to pull a broad range of articles and papers which were coded and analysed to explore the ways in which “soft” skills are defined, developed and measured. Key findings include: 1. There is wide agreement that “soft” skills (often termed “professional” or “generic” skills) are among the skills essential to employment across sectors. 2. While there is little agreement, however on how specifically these skills are defined. 3. While much attention is focused on providing Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) graduates with training in soft skills, less attention is focused on Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) graduates because of an assumption, perhaps mistaken, that these graduates will possess soft skills. 4. Employers report a “skills gap” and generally do not feel graduates possess sufficient “soft” skills to perform effectively. 5. There are significant differences in the expectations and perceptions of employers and the perceptions of educators and graduates regarding the level of soft skills graduates possess. 6. While there are some standardized tests for some soft skills – writing and critical reasoning for example, many soft skills can only be assessed in context and just as there is little agreement on definition, there is little agreement on assessment of these skills. 7. There are many stakeholders involved in the development and assessment of soft skills and most agree a combination of formal and informal or experiential learning are required. 8. Because of the way in which soft skills are learned, many segments of the population are disadvantaged in access to the coaching, training and role models needed to develop these skills and cultural biases may play a role in the definition and assessment of soft skills. Moreover the boundaries between “skills” and “personality traits or habits” are blurred particularly with respect to interpersonal skills. A diversity lens is critical. 9. The lack of consistency in definitions and fragmentation of stakeholders involved in soft skills development compounds the problem and more coordination is needed to develop shared expectations and to bridge the gap between supply and demand. 10. More research is needed to systematically assess empirically the ways in which soft skills can be defined, developed and evaluated