How can you measure the importance of “soft skills”?

Digital Divisions

Earlier this fall, my husband and I took ourselves out for a “date night” in New York City and wound up at a Japanese steakhouse restaurant, one where you’re seating at a table of 8–10 other people and a chef cooks all of the food on a piping hot iron griddle right in front of you.

We used to go for special occasions as a family growing up. Yes, the food (often a mix of stir fried vegetables and meat) is often quite good. But let’s be honest — you’re paying for the fun experience of watching food get prepared.

It’s a highly social dining event. The chef will often play to his table, picking on the youngest one by encouraging them to catch shrimp tails in their pockets or “fake them out” with a prank container of hot sauce that they pretend to squirt right at you.

When we went on date night, we were at a table of 6 — the two of us and four younger folks that looked to be high school age or early college. A couple of them were drinking, a couple weren’t, and the group of four was celebrating the youngest one’s birthday.

While this was still a highly engaging experience, we were shocked to see one common similarity among the younger folks next to us: Each one of them had their phone directly in front of their face for 90% of the dinner / show experience.

Yes, sometimes they were adding to their live Instagram story (for instance, when he created an “onion volcano” and set it on fire), but for most of the time, they were just…in different worlds.

We had a lot of questions for them (which clearly we didn’t ask): Why pay so much money for an experience if you don’t intend to be physically present and enjoy the moment? Why celebrate a birthday if you’re barely going to engage with the people next to you? And what does the increased prevalence of technology in your pocket mean for the development of key inter-personal social skills among our youth?


The importance of “soft skills”

This term tends to get a bad rep. As soon as you add the word, “soft” to anything, a lot of assumptions immediately get in the way:

  • That it’s somehow less important that its counterpart, “hard skills”
  • That it’s “just the squishy stuff” that sounds good but you can’t really measure or teach
  • That it implies traits that are inherently “more feminine” in some way (ergo certain types of people or personalities may not need this)

This is hugely problematic. Just because we’re adding more technology to the way we operate at work doesn’t mean we still won’t need to interact as humans to do our jobs. And if four friends can’t even sit around at a dinner table together and enjoy each other’s company and the social dynamic from a chef in front of them, how might they behave in a more professional context at work in a boardroom?

In a 2017 study by Harvard scholar David J Deming (which you can read here), he found that, despite advances in technology, the need in our economy for skills requiring “soft skills” is going up (not down).

Here’s some of what he found:

“Analyzing employment trends between 1980 and 2012, Deming found that jobs requiring extensive interaction, such as teachers, managers, and nurses, grew by nearly 12 points as a share of the labor force, while analytical positions that required few social skills, including some engineering jobs, declined. Wages for “high math, low social skill” occupations increased by 5.9 percent, compared with 26 percent growth for “high math, high social skill” openings.”
 (Via:
The 74)

In case you’re more visual, here’s another way to put it. In an information age of more automation, the demand for “translator roles” — people who can either teach, manage, or interpret technology and systems, are more important than ever.

Each row presents 100 times the change in employment share between 2000 and 2012 for the indicated
occupation. (via https://www.the74million.org/article/struggle-for-the-future-schools-lag-in-preparing-students-for-the-age-of-automation/)

To be clear, the definition of “soft skills” has so many different meanings any way you slice it. It is “people skills”? Is it communication skills? Is it workforce readiness training? And whether it’s one of these, all of these, or none of these, the next question is even trickier: Can this stuff be taught?

This piece from The 74, digs much deeper into this study, these questions, and also some ways that schools (even at the K-12 level) are starting to incorporate some type of professional skills training into the classroom setting. It’s an incredibly worthwhile read and calls out some of the challenges (and hard-to-measure parts) of teaching skills like this.

I’ve been thinking about this question for some time now and still don’t have an obvious answer. But I’d love to hear what you’ve seen. What’s working? What’s not? And how important is this “squishy stuff” in the end, anyway?


Originally published at Dry Erase, my personal blog and digital whiteboard.