Many skills are necessary for individuals to be successful workers, including academic knowledge, technical expertise, and general, cross-cutting abilities (often called employability skills, soft skills, workforce readiness skills, or career readiness skills) that are necessary for success in all employment levels and sectors.
Two major research studies involving surveys and feedback from large numbers of employers have established that “employability skills” outrank technical skills—or those skills needed for specific occupations based on industry standards—as the most important requirement for success in the workplace.1 Despite this, a 2007 report found that many young people lack the soft skills needed to excel in the workplace.2
Soft skills are generally defined as personal qualities, not technical, that translate into good job performance such as time-management and interpersonal skills. The Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) identified five competencies and three foundational skills and personal qualities needed for successful job performance.
The five competencies follow:
Three foundational skills are believed to support the competencies above:
In 2007, the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) asked representatives from businesses that were recognized for their innovative and proactive efforts to recruit, hire, and promote people with disabilities to develop a list of essential skills for young workers. The skills the group identified were similar to those identified as key competencies for successful young workers in the SCANS report. They included networking, enthusiasm, professionalism, communication skills, teamwork, and problem solving.4
Employers can encourage both technical and soft skill development through on-the-job coaching. Examples of on-the-job coaching are internships, apprenticeships, work-study programs, and training experiences where soft skills are learned through experiences. Although learning soft and technical skills on the job provides employees with an authentic learning experience, it can be challenging for employers to identify qualified coaches and allocate the appropriate staff time to ensure a focus on learning and skill development.5
Schools can prepare youth for the workplace by teaching soft skills or creating classroom environments that mimic work environments.6 These activities can make typical high school courses more relevant to students because almost everyone will work someday. Here are some essential workplace skills that can be taught in schools:
ODEP developed a curriculum for youth-serving professionals to assist them in working with in-school and out-of-school youth between the ages of 14 and 21, both with and without disabilities, in the development of employability skills. Soft Skills to Pay the Bills: Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success is a curriculum focused on teaching soft or workforce readiness skills to youth, including youth with disabilities. The basic structure of the program comprises hands-on, engaging activities that focus on six key skill areas: communication, enthusiasm and attitude, teamwork, networking, problem solving and critical thinking, and professionalism. The series also includes a soft skills video series with an accompanying discussion guide (PDF, 8 pages).
Youth Programs, Service-Learning, and Volunteering
Just like schools, service-learning projects, youth-serving organizations, and volunteering opportunities can also help foster soft skill development. For example, students who participate in service-learning have been found to develop increased tolerance of diversity and appreciation of other cultures, greater self-knowledge, personal efficacy, teamwork, leadership skills, compassion, selflessness, and intrinsic rewards.8
Employability Skills Framework
Resources on employability skills for employers, educators, and policymakers from the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education.
Soft Skills to Pay the Bills—Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success
The Office of Disability Employment Policy developed this curriculum focused on teaching soft or workforce readiness skills to youth, including youth with disabilities. The curriculum was created for youth development professionals as an introduction to workplace interpersonal and professional skills. The curriculum targets youth ages 14 to 21 in both in-school and out-of-school environments. The basic structure of the program consists of modular, hands-on, engaging activities that focus on six key skill areas: communication, enthusiasm and attitude, teamwork, networking, problem solving and critical thinking, and professionalism.
The Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) (PDF, 48 pages)
In 1990, the Secretary of Labor appointed a commission to determine the skills that our young people need to succeed in the world of work. The commission’s fundamental purpose was to encourage a high-performance economy characterized by high-skill, high-wage employment. Although the commission completed its work in 1992, its findings and recommendations continue to be a valuable source of information for individuals and organizations involved in education and workforce development.
Teaching the SCANS Competencies (PDF, 120 pages)
This report compiles six articles that give education and training practitioners practical suggestions for applying SCANS in classrooms and the workplace.
Teaching Soft Skills (PDF, 9 pages)
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy provides a resource focused on how schools and employment opportunities can teach soft skills, specifically for students with disabilities.
Soft Skills: The Competitive Edge
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy provides information on key competencies identified by a distinguished group of U.S. businesses. This report includes information on networking, enthusiasm, professionalism, communication skills, teamwork, and problem solving.
1 Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, 1992; The Conference Board Corporate, Voices for Working Families, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, & Society for Human Resource Management, 2006
2 America’s Promise Alliance, 2007
3 SCANS, 1992
4 U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, 2011
5 U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, 2010
6 U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, 2010
7 U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, 2010
8 Joseph, Spake, Grantham, & Stone, 2008; Milne, Gabb, & Leihy, 2008
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