1.2.1 Soft Skills

While there has been significant discussion of soft skills for years within the workforce development sector, and the youth economic opportunities field as a whole, the 2013 Conference focused on soft skills that are particularly relevant to certain industries, such as service, hospitality and tourism. The following text box shares highlights from new research the International Youth Foundation conducted in 2013 for the services sector.
Entry Level Customer Service Soft Skills Competencies for Service and Hospitality Industries

“To gather a large spectrum of views and expertise on the soft skills gap and current training practices in the service sector, the International Youth Foundation (IYF) conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with executives from Accenture, Arcos Dorados, Hilton, and Walmart; practitioners from the Mozilla Foundation; and executives and researchers from professional associations. Additional interviews they conducted with service sector executives and human resource and development practitioners—including South Africa’s major retailers, Ernst & Young, and Blackboard Inc.—yielded data that expanded and strengthened earlier interview findings. IYF also analyzed and evaluated trainings that were designed for entry-level employees, and which included a soft skills component; and trainings that professional associations conducted for service sector companies.

Competencies for entry-level employees in customer service positions include the following set of soft skills: customer service, communication, teamwork and interpersonal skills, organizational and planning skills, critical thinking and problem solving, creativity, culture sensitization, presentation and professionalism, work ethics (integrity and reliability), self-assessment, and the ability to receive constructive feedback. 1

Special programs are needed to address soft skill deficits among less educated hires.

Service sector employers are investing in training/career development for non-higher education bound youth to ensure a healthy pipeline of skilled workers, particularly those with the critical customer service skills identified by IYF in the aforementioned Getting Youth in the Door publication. Both Accenture and Hilton noted that the critical employability skills, the lack of which often spells career failure for entry-level workers, are not generally taught in schools, particularly those serving non college-bound populations.  In response, Hilton has developed an internal program to teach staff at all levels to resolve customer issues/problems using independent judgment and critical thinking to formulate appropriate customer service actions.  The program, called “Make it Right,” is notably resulting in empowerment of hotel staff and improvement in internal measures of customer satisfaction.  Another Hilton partnership in Colombia aims to transfer basic hospitality industry skills to less advantaged Afro-Caribbean students through an internship and mentoring program.  These and other forms of direct outreach to non-traditional youth populations are increasingly important ways of filling Hilton’s employment pipeline.  Adopting a youth-led approach, Hilton is also deploying its youngest (junior) managers, including presenter Alejandra Martinez, to create an accelerated 6-9 month immersion (apprenticeship) experience for entry-level workers in Mexico through a “youth opportunity pathway,” providing disadvantaged youth with work placement, a cross-training experience, and soft skills, all leading to a permanent job offer.

A Young Person Sharing Her Perspective on Soft Skills

“They always tell you that you need teamwork, and…communication skills, but what does that really mean when you’re in the workplace? …Hands-on practice will give you something you'll never learn in a classroom...It’s [different] to learn about teamwork than to be on a team." –Alejandra Martinez- Hilton Elevator Program (trainee), Hilton Worldwide (Mexico)

Accenture has developed a model to address this challenge through a corporate social responsibility initiative. Accenture partnered with the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools, a national network of charter schools, to build the Future Focus program, a year-long career readiness program. It began in 2011 at the KIPP Washington, DC school for more than 50 high school students from underserved communities. The program focused on providing the youth participants with core workforce skills training, career coaching and experiential learning opportunities to support the students to become successful in college, career and life. The comprehensive four-hour, every other Saturday classroom experience covers Career Management, Communications, Global Awareness, Presentation Skills, Financial Literacy, Critical Thinking, and Technology and Media Literacy. The program was so structured and rigorous that participants received college credit for completing it, and they were ready for paid internships with Accenture upon completion. Accenture sees the combination of studies, intensive mentoring from Accenture professionals and paid work experience as the “sweet spot” for helping young people break out of a cycle of poverty and prepare for service industry jobs.

Recognizing that the intensive classroom experience is not appropriate for all KIPP students, Accenture has also produced Future Focus content into a computer-based Career Academy in which mini versions of each four- hour class are presented by previous Future Focus participants.

Lessons Learned to Date on Soft Skills

These sector-specific experiences compliment several findings from prior years’ Global Youth Economic Opportunities Conferences. The following is a list of key lessons learned that practitioners have highlighted between 2011 and 2013:

  • Internship programs can provide effective entry points for youth entering the formal labor market, but require significant up-front investments to start
  • Focus on “career navigation skills”—especially labor market awareness, job search capacity, and self-presentation—to connect young people to jobs 2
  • Precisely defining soft skills needs and requirements can help both employers and learners
  • Using experiential learning approaches helps learners understand employers’ and customers’ needs 3