Building Soft Skills for the Changing World of Work
By Valerie G. Ward and Dorothy I. Riddle
Our Changing World of Work
As career counselors, educators and employment service providers, our ultimate goal in working with individuals is to facilitate successful work transitions. To do so, we need to be mindful of emerging workforce and labor market trends, including:
- Full-time employment is diminishing; at least 40% of Americans are predicted to become freelancers by 2020 (Giang, 2013; Intuit 2020 Report, 2014; Young, 2010).
- Self-employment, part-time work, and portfolio careers are increasing (NCDA, 2014).
- Soft skills are key to success in both new work structures and traditional employment scenarios.
- Clients and counselors are often unaware that soft skills are missing.
- Employers generally see it as “not their job” to help employees cultivate soft skills.
Critical Soft Skills to Build
The Employment Readiness Model, developed by the authors and based on international research, includes five soft skills that play a vital role in successful work transitions. Originally developed with traditional employment in mind, these factors take on a different emphasis for those pursuing self-managed career scenarios:
1. Self-Efficacy – having the self-confidence needed to be proactive in pursuing opportunities and to perform well
2. Outcome Expectancy – willingness to take responsibility for one’s own success
3. Social Supports – ability to generate back-up capacity for one’s responsibilities and to obtain referrals to new customers
4. Work History – ability to identify and use transferable skills, as well as to leverage referral sources
5. Job Maintenance – displaying communication and self-management skills necessary for self-employment, and the ability to generate repeat business or contracts
Repositioning Employability Factors
The Employment Readiness Model also covers four “employability factors” which again take on a different emphasis when preparing clients and learners for more fluid, self-managed work lives:
1. Career Decision-Making – knowing which skills to market and what types of work structures to pursue for best possible fit
2. Skills Enhancement – prioritizing investments of time and money for ongoing professional development
3. Job Search – knowing how to identify potential customers and acquire referrals
4. Ongoing Career Management – ability to identify new opportunities, set priorities for learning, and come up with ways to expand one’s network
Soft Skills Gaps
The soft skill data that follow has been aggregated from diverse organizations using the Employment Readiness Scale™ − an internationally validated instrument designed to measure the previously-cited Employment Readiness Model. Looking at individuals deemed “Not Ready” (i.e., least employment-ready) in the U.S., we can see where soft skills were lacking, and evaluate the effectiveness of interventions provided:
- Self-Efficacy – 61% of clients and learners initially lacked a belief in their ability to perform well, and 29% remained low on this factor after interventions
- Outcome Expectancy – 39% did not expect to succeed, and 20% remained low after interventions
- Social Supports – 62% scored low on this factor initially, and 26% remained low after interventions
- Work History – 70% lacked a positive view of their previous work at the outset, and 38% remained weak on this factor after interventions
- Job Maintenance – 45% initially expressed concern about their ability to keep work, and 24% remained low after interventions
Building Soft Skills
The numbers cited above serve as a call to action, compelling us as practitioners to strengthen our capacity to empower our clients and learners at all ages and stages to cultivate these skills. The good news is that there are multiple strategies for integrating these skills into our everyday work with individuals (Ward & Riddle, 2014). The following summarizes the key elements of each soft skill and offers sample strategies practitioners can use to help build each skill.
1. Self-Efficacy includes feeling competent to manage one’s personal and work life, a sense of being able to perform well, the ability to build on past successes, and a positive self-esteem.
Sample strategies for building Self-Efficacy:
- Shifting the focus from deficit to success
- Providing positive feedback
- Helping individuals connect with outside support
2. Outcome Expectancy includes believing one’s efforts will result in successful outcomes, being optimistic about one’s work future, and taking responsibility for creating work life success.
Sample strategies for building Outcome Expectancy:
- Helping the person develop a more positive view of the future and what could be
- Emphasizing the person’s own role in creating their success
3. Social Supports include having back-ups for managing personal responsibilities, having someone to turn to when discouraged, having a network of contacts to learn about opportunities, and knowing about resources available for assistance.
Sample strategies for building Social Supports:
- Helping clients learn why networks are important
- Practicing how to build, strengthen, and utilize their personal and professional network
4. Work History involves a feeling of having succeeded in past paid work and/or volunteer positions.
Sample strategies for building Work History:
- Reframing (i.e., recognizing the positives from) past experiences
- Selecting best-fit work settings
- Finding a mentor
5. Job Maintenance includes understanding customer expectations, being a good communicator and problem solver, working well with others, the ability to prioritize and multi-task, and the ability to put aside personal problems when at work.
Sample strategies for building Job Maintenance:
- Helping individuals understand and build effective work habits
- Addressing previous problems at work
- Preparing to succeed at work
We hope these ideas will stimulate counselors and career educators to generate and share their own creative approaches to building vital soft skills in clients and learners. Indeed, as the context of our own work structures as career developers becomes more fluid, it may be timely to consider strategies for taking our own soft skills to the next level to better position us for our own evolving work futures.
Giang, V. (March 21, 2013). 40 percent of Americans will be freelancers by 2020. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/americans-want-to-work-for-themselves-intuit-2013-3
Intuit 2020 Report: Twenty Trends that Will Shape the Next Decade. November 2010.
National Career Development Association. (Spring 2014). Career Developments, 30(2), Focus issue, “Portfolio Careers in the 21st Century”.
Ward, V. G., & Riddle, D. I. (2001). Summary of research on the Employment Readiness Scale™. Retrieved from http://www.employmentreadiness.info/node/4
Ward, V. G., & Riddle, D. I. (2014). Weaving soft skills development into everyday employment services in Canada. Retrieved from http://www.employmentreadiness.info/home
Young, S. (November 7, 2014). It’s a freelance world: Why contract work is becoming the new norm. Retrieved from http://blog.hubstaff.com/freelancer-world-contract-work-becoming-new-norm/
Valerie G. Ward, M.A., is a career development specialist with over 30 years’ experience in developing programs, learning resources, partnerships, and strategies to meet the career development and labour market adjustment needs of service providers and their clients. She is the co-developer and owner of the Employment Readiness Scale™ (ERS) (www.EmploymentReadiness.info) and heads Valerie G. Ward Consulting Ltd. near Vancouver, BC. She can be reached at email@example.com
Dorothy I. Riddle, PhD, is a certified management consultant (CMC), a psychologist, an economic development and social change specialist, and an award-winning author. She heads Service-Growth Consultants Inc. (http://servicegrowth.com/blog/), was co-developer of the Employment Readiness Scale™ (ERS) and serves as its Operations Manager. She has conducted training with hundreds of providers of career and employment services in Canada, the US, Australia and the UK. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jim Peacock on Friday 10/02/2015 at 08:09 AM
Thanks for a great practical article on how to build soft skills. I appreciate the breakdown of what skills are important and the specific practical things you can do to build them.
Katie Sewelll on Friday 10/02/2015 at 08:57 AM
Thank you! The suggestions on what we can do for our students (or clients) is very helpful. On some level, I feel like we all do this already, but being more intentional about applying the strategies will just make our clients better able to manage their careers.
Elisabeth Sanders-Park on Monday 10/05/2015 at 12:34 PM
Thank you for putting some tangible, parameters around this vital yet often "intangible" piece of the career success puzzle.
In partnership with a large workforce development area in I recently researched and authored The Workplace Excellence Series which is a modular curriculum designed to help job seekers and incumbent workers to cultivate the soft skills employers want today.
I am curious how the ERS can help organizations assess individuals' needs and progress. Thank you Valerie and Dorothy for your good work and this helpful article.
Valerie Ward on Monday 10/05/2015 at 06:10 PM
Thank you all for taking the time to comment and I'm delighted to know that the article was helpful for you. I'd be pleased to discuss how the Employment Readiness Scale (ERS) could be used to assess needs and program outcomes, Elisabeth (exactly what the instrument was designed to do). Your curriculum sounds like a really valuable contribution - I look forward to learning more about it.