Evan Soltas
Jul 3, 2012

Why Soft Skills Matter

Joe Nocera has an excellent column this week in The New York Times, discussing "soft skills" and programs to inculcate them. Soft skills, Nocera writes in a broad definition, are "how to interact with colleagues in an office setting" -- the emotional and social know-how which affects every step of the employment process from the job interview and application to the conduct of the employee with clients or customers.

For example, think about how you sign off emails in a professional setting. Depending on your closeness with the recipient, you might write "best regards," "best," "regards," "cheers," "sincerely," "thank you," "thanks," or God knows what else. Now, who taught you that? Did anyone teach you that? Or was it something you learned intuitively? That knowledge -- finicky perhaps, but essential in business conduct -- is a manifestation of your soft skills.

That is not something everyone knows how to do, and in fact, the lack of soft skills is a major barrier to providing socioeconomic opportunities to the poor. It is hard to "get your foot in the door" when you know neither how to properly ask someone to open it nor how to look and act if they do.

To supplement Nocera's column, I did some further research into the social science findings on soft skills. What I found was, in my opinion, startlingly powerful rigorous evidence for his anecdotal argument.

First and foremost is the recent work of Nobel laureate James Heckman, who recently presented a summary of recent findings in his paper "Hard Evidence on Soft Skills."

Soft skills, Heckman writes, "predict success in life...[and] causally produce that success...[P]rograms that enhance soft skills have an important place in an effective portfolio of public policies."

Heckman finds that measures of soft skills are in many cases as predictive of success, defined in many different ways, as are measures of cognitive ability, academic achievement, or socioeconomic background. Another study of soft skills found that surveys of social and motivational traits were as predictive of labor market success 15 to 20 years out as completed years of schooling. In another manifestation of soft skills -- in this case, the ability to perceive and act upon social cues and expectations -- the researchers found that the "cleanliness of the respondent's home was a persistently powerful positive predictor of labor-market success."

And we can teach soft skills. Investment in early childhood education, one vehicle for the transmission of soft skills, produced an economic return of 7 to 10 percent per annum for both boys and girls, according to Heckman's case study of the Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan. (See also Heckman's helpful presentation, made for the World Bank in 2011.)

A 1996 survey of employers in a broad range of industries in Detroit and Los Angeles showed that 47 percent named a soft skill as the most important criterion to their hiring decision, and 86 percent named at least one soft skill as among such criteria. 43 percent said soft skill requirements were rising; not a single one said they were less attentive to soft skills.