1.1.1 Soft Skills

The need for transferrable personal management and behavioral competencies among young job seekers arises in almost every conversation about skills and employment, and is becoming a central feature of WfD programs. A broad variety of initiatives are captured under the banner of “soft skills.”  This term may refer to workplace readiness/competencies, interpersonal skills, and skills related to navigating the labor market (as well as one’s career).

Precisely defining soft skills needs and requirements can help both employers and learners.
At its worst, the term “soft skills” is often used to lump together all of the characteristics and attributes that are not “hard” technical and vocational skills that are more easily tested for mastery. This invites ambiguity about what is important to employers, and what students and learners need to master to access good employment opportunities. The very breadth of the term creates the need for clear definitions and sub-categories to promote coherence and consistency in the field. Further compounding the confusion, many different initiatives to categorize or group soft skills are underway. The European Union, for example, has funded research that suggests three clusters of social, methodological, and personal skills which are seen as related in how and whether they can be taught or imparted.   

New Tools: Clarifying Soft Skills through Manpower’s Job Performance Personality Inventory
The ManpowerGroup[1] has gone a long way towards systematizing the often “fuzzy” concept of soft skills.  With the Job Performance Personality Inventory tool, developed through a two-year research effort using personality profiling theory, ManpowerGroup created a systematic way to clearly translate employer soft skill requirements into 25 measurable “personality scales,” with most careers seeking strength in 8-10 dimensions.  Manpower can then screen for applicants who, through self-assessments, reveal the right profile in terms of the relevant personality scales. The 25 dimensions are:
Adaptable                              Interest Seeking
Agreeable Leadership
Ambitious Persuasive
Autonomous Planning and Coordination
Cautious Problem Solving
Communicative Resourceful
Cooperative Responsive
Decisive Self-confidence
Dependable Self-developing
Emotionally Intelligent Sociable
Energetic Socially-attentive
Extraverted Stress tolerant
Instructive Ability  

One of the most interesting aspects of the tool is its ability to correlate common soft skills with measurable personality scales, and the importance this holds for clarifying soft skill requirements. ManpowerGroup found that when employers ask for “teamwork” skills, they are seeking applicants who assess as cooperative, communicative, socially attentive, and dependable. Employers seeking “motivated” employees in practice want to hire ambitious and interest seeking youth.  The tool creates numerous possibilities for assessing youth earlier in their education, identifying the progress of university and vocational educational and training in preparing students for careers, and for tracking the effectiveness of specific training experiences in advancing youth skills.

As Branka Minic, former Director of Global Corporate and Government Affairs for ManpowerGroup, stated at the 2012 Global Youth Economic Opportunities Conference that, “employers hire for hard skills but they certainly fire for lack of soft skills, and those shortcomings most often manifest when dealing with unfamiliar situations and difficult customers. 

Using experiential learning approaches helps learners understand employers’ and customers’ needs.
Experiential learning approaches have been proven to be effective when used with both young people and adults (e.g. teachers). Presenters from two projects reported that experiential learning approaches (e.g. workplace simulations), in which students gain firsthand exposure to the issues and interactions most common to the jobs for which they are trained in a controlled environment, to be invaluable. While for some careers, significant “desk-learning” is required, implementers have found training experiences that simulate the workplace to be extremely effective in preparing youth to master interactions with peers and customers in the workplace, and gain a tangible understanding of jobs that employers seek.  The most effective experiential approaches appear to be those that give youth greater sense of responsibility for/tangible ownership of business goals. The accompanying text box highlights a successful company simulation model deployed by the Education for Employment (EFE) Foundation[2] in Egypt and presented at the 2012 GYEOC.

New Tools: EFE’s Company Simulation Model—An Experiential Learning Approach to Job Seeking and Interviewing

In Egypt, the Education for Employment Foundation (EFE) is deploying a company simulation model throughout the duration of its Workplace Success (soft skills) course, providing unemployed recent graduates with several “days in the life” of the employer, and a real sense of direct experience of the employment process in which they will later participate.  Students are placed in groups to form simulated companies and tasked to create a structure, products or services offered, marketing materials, a company identity and history, and specifics like the number of employees and HR policies.  To simulate the employment process, each company then creates a job description and an interview guide so they identify the competencies needed, and develop a grading system. Students then sit on a panel, interviewing youth from the other groups/companies. In the process, they begin to understand why an interviewer asks specific questions and how they can appropriately answer questions to meet the employers’ expectations. 

Technology can also play a key role in non-formal education and teacher training programs. When integrated into innovative pedagogical practices, technology can transform classrooms and learning spaces to achieve more active types of learning.  Intel® Learn, part of the Intel® Education Initiative funded by the Intel® Corporation and Intel® Foundation, is an example of a learner-centered, hands-on technology program that teaches 21st century skills and critical thinking through collaborative learning, projects, and the development of presentation skills. The following text box shares details of key findings to date.

Noteworthy Results: Intel® Programs Employ Technology to Facilitate Project-based Learning and Invigorate Classrooms

The Intel® Learn program functions in non-formal learning spaces such as afterschool programs and community organizations. Learn focuses on how technology can be used in the community, workplace setting, and for entrepreneurship. SRI International conducted a multi-national evaluation of the program that included a single country case study. They found positive outcomes for individual learners and teachers. Learning outcomes included: (1) Learners became more proficient with technology (in one country, 86 percent of final projects learners created for the course met or exceeded expectations); (2) Learners developed collaboration skills (observation of learners showed that they worked in inclusive groups, were respectful, and solved disagreements; and (3) learners were engaged in the program (completion rates ranged between 85-99 percent in 9 countries). Teachers reported that trainings prepared them for their facilitation role and altered classroom dynamics; learners described classrooms as friendly places with more open norms than is traditional.

The Intel® Teach portfolio of teacher professional development promotes technology use in formal education systems. It has trained over ten million teachers in 70 countries and has worked with over 25 evaluation groups worldwide. The Center for Children and Technology at the Education Development Center (EDC) has been coordinating the evaluation efforts for Intel Teach since 2000.  The evaluation tracks four indicators: (1) teachers’ use of the lesson plans they create in the trainings; (2) new uses of technology with students; (3) increased use of technology to develop lesson plans and find resources; and (4) increased use of project-based learning. A 2009 survey of 20 countries found the following: 75 percent of teachers use the unit; 75 percent are using other types of technology with their students, 84 percent increased use of technology for lesson planning, and 54 percent increased project-based learning. EDC found that teachers engaged in a deeper reflection on what learning is and began to embrace more project-based, experiential learning methodologies. They also understood that children should play with technology.

For more information about all of these Intel programs, see: http://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/education/evaluations.html

The cycle time for training should correspond to employers' hiring timeline.
Working with the private sector requires respecting that private sector hiring timelines are generally unforgiving, and businesses’ experience with training providers in this respect is mixed. Program implementing organizations that participated in the 2012 Conference reported significant progress towards developing and implementing training strategies that are directly responsive to employers’ hiring schedules, with EFE specifically noting that they normally try to maintain a maximum three-month training horizon in order to respond to employers’ near-term plans. This stands in stark contrast to traditional Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) programs that last a full academic year (nine months or more).  

One project pioneering these approaches is the USAID-funded Access to Employment Program. The following text box describes this initiative and its results.

Bright Idea: Just-in-time Skills Training and Job Placement for At-risk Youth in El Salvador—Carina’s Jovenes Comprometidos: Yo Hago la Diferencia

Working in partnership with the Salvadoran private sector and the national training institute (INSAFORP), the USAID-funded Access to Employment Program, implemented by CARANA Corporation with RTI International, has pioneered an innovative just-in-time training aimed at the rapid placement of at-risk youth in their first formal work experiences. This 4-year, US$7.5 million project, titled Jovenes Comprometidos: Yo Hago la Diferencia (Committed Young People: I Make the Difference), responds in particular to service industry employers’ need for employment-ready, entry-level employees who both understand and want the job for which they are being trained and hired. The project offers rapid-cycle employment orientation for partners such as Pollo Campero, CFA Central American Franchise Corporation, and others.

The program aims to provide at least 4,480 persons with new or improved jobs. Ongoing outreach through Facebook puts the project in contact with over 30,000 target youth per week. Beneficiaries include high school dropouts, high school seniors, unemployed and out-of-school high school graduates, and a small number of university seniors. Beneficiaries come from 212 of El Salvador’s 268 municipalities.

Approximately 35 trainees are screened and selected from initial groups of 150 mostly recent high school graduates in a one-day selection process based on interest, availability for the working hours of the target employer, and psychological tests.  The following week, the first 25 trainees to arrive start a 5-, 10-, or 20-day “employment orientation” training. The hands-on training emphasizes the core competencies for the specific job, soft skills, as well as interview skills (trainees are promised only an interview). The length of the job readiness training depends on the job, for example, 5 days for customer service and sales personnel, 10 days for cashiers, and 20 days for accounting assistants.  The shorter training is appropriate for employers hiring almost the entire training group and providing their own in-house training on business specifics. The 20-day training is to thoroughly prepare youth for jobs, particularly within small- and medium-sized firms, which seek youth ready to start.  Job interviews take place the following week. Those selected by employers, approximately 80 percent, begin working the next week in entry-level jobs with formal employment contracts and benefits.

The just-in-time cycle of selection-training-interview is meticulously coordinated with anchor employers to coincide with their hiring plans. Those not selected are referred to similar businesses that week-by-week identify vacancies. The total time from screening to the start of employment can be as short as 20 days.

Through December 31, 2012 (i.e., after 13 quarters), the program had assisted 7,817 persons in securing new or improved jobs.  The program is likely to reach 10,000 young people with new or improved jobs by its end date of November 30, 2013. The hiring rate is higher for occupations where employers indicated they had immediate vacancies (e.g., sales, customer service, cashiers). The program has also started a national internship program for junior college and university students. Most of the training is now financed and contracted by the Salvadoran government workforce development agency, INSAFORP. Cash and in-kind cost sharing from more than 40 corporate partners, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and government agencies to date has totaled more than US$1.5 million. In 2013, the program will be expanded to include new occupations such as microfinance advisor, fruit and vegetable handlers in supermarkets, hotel service personnel, and others. And the program will create and launch the country’s first national job orientation web portal.

It may be difficult for programs to sustain relationships with employer partners that only bring urgent requests for specifically-qualified employees in moments of “crisis.”  Designing programs around employers’ hiring timelines should always be the goal, but implementers should also choose partners that are committed to mutually-respectful and reality-based partnerships.  

Projects and implementers need to build strong brand awareness in order to help open employers’ doors to youth program participants.
Implementers’/programs’ “brand image” and reputation for success effectively transfer to and will stay with trainees, so it is important to maintain a strong and widely-recognized brand among the targeted employer community. Conference participants agreed that brands are built on positive experiences and a reputation for success in collaborating effectively with employers to help them meet their business goals. “Brand marketing” can be important in communicating these achievements, but outreach and publicity strategies need to be backed up with high-quality and real results.

Bridges from School to Work (“Bridges”) is a program of the Marriott Foundation for People with Disabilities. For 20 years, the program has provided job readiness training to youth, ages 17 to 22, with documented disabilities. Operating in partnership with school districts and vocational rehabilitation and workforce development agencies in Baltimore City and Montgomery County, MD; Atlanta, GA; Chicago, IL; Dallas, TX; Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco, CA; Philadelphia, PA; and Washington, DC, Bridges has facilitated the transition of over 16,000 youth into paid employment while generating solid, business-driven partnerships with employers. It carries a strong and broadly- respected corporate brand affiliation that immediately communicates seriousness and quality to potential employers. In addition, Bridges shares the Marriott Corporation’s extensive experience in employing disabled workers with potential employer-partners, and educates their hiring managers on how a successful company has negotiated the complex legal landscape related to hiring people with disabilities.


[1] The ManpowerGroup is a company that creates and delivers high-impact workforce development solutions that enable its clients to achieve their business goals and enhance their competitiveness.

[2] The Education for Employment (EFE) Foundation is an affiliated network of locally-run, non-profit organizations that creates economic opportunity for youth in the Middle East and North Africa.