REPORT: Key Soft Skills for Cross-Sectoral Youth Outcomes

Sarah Gates, Laura Lippman, Noel Shadowen, Holly Burke, Obed Diener, Morissa Malkin
FHI 360, YouthPower Action
Resource Type: 
Publication Date: 
Nov, 2016

A growing body of evidence recognizes the importance of soft skills in predicting long-term life outcomes, including labor market outcomes as well as social and health behaviors (Heckman et al, 2006; Kautz et al., 2014). Soft skills refer to a broad set of skills, behaviors, and personal qualities that enable people to effectively navigate their environment, relate well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals. These skills are applicable across sectors and complement the acquisition of other skills such as technical and academic skills. Although the returns to cognitive and technical skills have long been recognized, recent literature suggests that soft skills rival cognitive skills in their ability to predict positive outcomes. Moreover, evidence suggests that soft skills are more malleable than cognitive skills among adolescents and youth adults (Heckman et al., 2006; Kautz et al., 2014).

Despite growing interest in this topic, however, there is no clear consensus about which soft skills are likely to produce the greatest benefit to youth and to what extent these skills are similar or different across key outcome areas. This report aims to identify the core soft skills that would create positive outcomes across important areas of youth’s lives, including workforce success, violence prevention, and sexual and reproductive health (SRH). The hypothesis tested by this research is that there is a common set of soft skills that lead to positive outcomes across multiple domains.

The current research builds on the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID’s) prior investments in understanding the evidence that soft skills predict workforce success (see Lippman et al., 2015). Lippman and colleagues (2015) examined the relationship between soft skills and key workforce outcomes, including employment, performance on the job, wages, and entrepreneurial success, with a particular focus on youth and entry-level workers. As a result of the analysis, the authors identified five critical soft skills that international youth development programs could commonly target to improve workforce outcomes. The report found that the soft skills most likely to increase odds of youth success across all key workforce outcomes include: self-control, positive self-concept, social skills, communication, and higher order thinking skills.

In addition to workforce development, violence prevention and sexual and reproductive health (SRH) have received considerable attention by international youth development programs and donors, including USAID. Donors are making major investments to support youth, particularly in conflict-affected environments, and in regions where fertility and/or HIV infection rates among adolescents remain high. The present study conducted an extensive review of the soft skills literature as it relates to these two areas of interest, with the ultimate goal of better understanding which soft skills most effectively contribute to positive outcomes for youth across all three of these outcome areas. Three skills were identified as having Page 2 of 96 strong support across all three outcomes—positive self-concept, self-control, and social skills—while additional skills emerged as critical for one or two of the three outcome areas.

The authors of this study reviewed many types of resources, including rigorous empirical studies, meta-analyses, literature reviews, and qualitative literature. The authors also consulted experts in the field, including practitioners and researchers. The evidence gathered included resources that examined the relationship between soft skills and violence prevention outcomes, including general aggressive behavior, bullying and cyberbullying, violent crime, group and gang-related violence, and intimate partner violence (IPV). In addition, resources were gathered that analyzed the relationship between soft skills and key SRH outcomes, including risky and protective sexual behaviors, pregnancy and birth, HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and gender-based violence.

The present report follows the definitions outlined by Lippman and colleagues (2015) and attempts to align it with the terminology used in the violence prevention and SRH fields. To draw conclusions about the most-supported soft skills within and across domains, the methodology used for screening the literature also followed the methodology and procedures used by Lippman and colleagues (2015). This approach aimed to ensure consistency and comparability across fields. The challenges encountered in integrating terminology across fields and incorporating regional, gender-related, and age-related considerations are discussed.

After the evidence was compiled, a set of criteria was applied to arrive at the list of recommended skills. Criteria included: the breadth and quality of research, stakeholder support, regional diversity of the studies, and malleability (whether a skill can be improved) of the soft skills. As a result, the recommended skills enjoy strong and diverse support from the literature and among stakeholders and are developmentally appropriate and can be shaped during ages 12–29.

Read the full report

Soft Skills