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Viewpoints and Findings from the REL Mid-Atlantic

Soft Skills, Workplace Skills, 21st Century Skills, Noncognitive Skills, and More: Hear That Jangle?
By Jan Anderson

soft skillsHiring officials nationwide, regardless of industry or region, insist that---in addition to being literate, strong in math, and technologically adept---their new employees need to be on time, focus on the task, contribute to the team, communicate well, take advice and improve. These characteristics—oftentimes called soft skills—contribute mightily to whether a new hire succeeds and advances.

For people to succeed in the workplace, they need the attitudes and behaviors that make up soft skills. But these skills go by different names. Educators, employers, parents, and students use different phrases (for example, noncognitive skills, 21st century skills, social-emotional skills, or workplace skills) in different ways. We get stuck in what Coleman and Curetoni referred to as the jangle fallacy: the erroneous assumption that two identical or almost identical things are different because they are labeled differently. Eleven experts convened by the National Research Council in 2012 examined a wide literature on soft skills and lamented the amount of jangle as they tried to identify the competencies that are truly critical for employabilityii. Jangle can slow us down as we try to communicate with each other to guide student growth. Relatedly, it interferes with our attempts to document that growth. But we shouldn’t let the jangle confuse us, because soft skills really matter, regardless of what we call them.

While employers indicate these skills are critical for workplace success, students tend to underestimate their importance, or the degree to which they possess these skills. In 2015, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, which works with public- and private-sector leaders in southwestern Pennsylvania, surveyediii employers and new hires on their opinions of the strengths and weaknesses of new hires. New hires were asked whether they felt they and their peers had the soft skills required to be successful on the job; 63 percent responded that they did. However, only 14 percent of their employers agreed.

To address the need for a shared understanding about strategies to promote student growth in these competencies and to track that growth, REL Mid-Atlantic staff are working with educators and employers in western Pennsylvania, through the REL’s alliance on readiness for career entry and success, to boil down frameworks of critical workplace skills (both academic and soft) and clarify the terminology in order to identify the skills on which schools and districts within this alliance will focus. On April 4, we will meet to determine next steps for schools and districts.

As a start, we are boiling down research evidence around three frameworks of critical workplace skills:

  • The National Network of Business and Industry Associations polled its members and created a framework of four types of employability skills: personal, people, applied knowledge, and workplaceiv. Each included subcategories (such as “teamwork, communication, and respect” under “people skills” and typical school subjects such as reading and writing under “applied knowledge”). In all, the framework contains 20 skills.
  • Child Trends reviewed the research literature, compiled findings from more than 380 sources, and convened focus groups across employers, trainers, and educators to formulate Key Soft Skills for Youth Workforce Successv. The authors note that five soft skills—communication, positive self-concept, self-control, higher-order thinking skills, and social skills—are instrumental in driving workplace success. They say, “Youth who are competent in these soft skills are effective in their job searches and interviews and thus are more likely to be hired … to be productive … retained on the job … and promoted.”
  • The Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education in the U.S. Department of Education has compiled an Employability Skills Frameworkvi that organizes skills into three broad areas—effective relationships, workplace skills, and applied knowledge—with specific employability skills nested in each area indicating what businesses want in their employees.

What’s Next?

To help students get started with the skills required to succeed, we must distill the research about the soft skills employers define as essential, and simplify how we talk about such workplace competencies. In addition, we will identify valid ways to measure those skills—and, most importantly, assist districts as they work with students to develop individualized career plans to support their growth toward readiness.


i Coleman, W.C., and E.E. Cureton. “Intelligence and Achievement: The ‘Jangle Fallacy’ Again.” Educational and Psychological Measurement, vol. 14, no. 2, 1954, pp. 347–351.

ii Pellegrino, J.W., and M.L. Hilton. Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century. Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills; Board on Testing and Assessment; Board on Science Education; Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Research Council, 2012.

iii Campos Research Strategy. “Bridging the Soft Skills Gap.” Pittsburgh, PA: U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and Allegheny Conference on Community Development, 2015. Available at http://www.alleghenyconference.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/BridgingSoftSkillsGap.pdf.
Accessed February 10, 2018.

iv National Network of Business and Industry Associations. “Common Employability Skills—A Foundation for Success in the Workplace: The Skills All Employees Need, No Matter Where They Work.” 2014. Available at https://businessroundtable.org/sites/default/files/Common%20Employability_asingle_fm.pdf.
Accessed February 10, 2018.

v Lippman, L.H., R. Ryberg, R.Carney, and K.A. Moore. “‘Soft Skills’ That Foster Youth Workforce Success: Toward a Consensus Across Fields.” Child Trends publication no. 2015-24. Bethesda, MD: Child Trends, Inc., 2015. Available at https://www.childtrends.org/publications/key-soft-skills-that-foster-youth-workforce-success-toward-a-consensus-across-fields/.
Accessed February 10, 2018.

vi Perkins Collaborative Resource Network. “The Employability Skills Framework.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education, Division of Academic and Technical Education. Available at http://cte.ed.gov/initiatives/employability-skills-framework.
Accessed February 10, 2018.