Soft skills are more important than ever. Assessing them remains a challenge

As recruiters increasingly look for well-rounded skill sets, the process for identifying them is getting more sophisticated.
article cover

Yossakorn Kaewwannarat/Getty Images

· 5 min read

Soft skills are anything but soft. In today’s remote-friendly, DE&I-conscious, intergenerational workplace, the skills associated with high emotional intelligence—empathy, active listening, conflict resolution—are increasingly valued by employers.

But soft skills are harder to test for than, say, proficiency in a programming language.

“Soft skills are less binary [and] also more contextualized,” said Deborah Everhart, chief strategy officer at Credential Engine, a nonprofit that aims to make the wide range of microcredentials—such as certificates earned from boot camps or online courses—more transparent to workers and employers.

Many HR teams have started adopting a skills-based approach to talent strategy. In doing so, they’ve realized a keen need to hire for soft skills. But the standard interview process does not always allow employers to identify and assess candidates’ soft skills. As a result, they’re considering new hiring processes.

Defining these skills. Naomi Boyer, executive director of digital transformation at the Education Design Lab (EDL), works with educators and business leaders, including many in HR, to develop frameworks for assessing the skills they’re looking for in prospective students and employees. Her preferred term for soft skills is “21st century skills.”

“Employers often say we can train the technical, [but] we can’t train the 21st century skills. We need people to be coming in with the skills, and they’re not showing up job-ready,” she told HR Brew. “Everyone’s trying to figure out the best way to do this.”

EDL’s research-backed framework tests (sometimes using extended or virtual reality) for soft skills across nine competencies—including empathy, resilience, and creative problem-solving—each with four sub-competencies, such as active listening and self-awareness.

“All of those assessments are performance-based,” Boyer said. “They are more contextualized, and they have to be completed at mastery in order to earn digital microcredentials.”

EDL is also working on ways to use existing data—such as a worker’s ratings on a freelancer platform—to determine the strength of their soft skills. Boyer said some platforms, including Fiverr’s and, offer some positive correlation.

“These crowdsourcing pieces could be a way for us to elevate and validate that someone might have those skills,” Boyer said.

A framework for 21st Century skills, made in the style of a metro map.

Education Design Lab

Who has these skills? Soft skills can be developed in many ways, not just through an office job. Cashiers, hospitality workers, and receptionists, for example, all require soft skills to do their jobs. “Individuals have existing skills that are often not elevated or captured or validated as part of the job process,” Boyer said.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.

Everhart has first-hand experience with this dichotomy. As a PhD in medieval studies, she found herself working in product management at educational software companies Blackboard and Cengage. Working in a computer lab as a teaching assistant gave her an understanding of how educators use technology and made her a strong candidate for product management roles, despite the seeming incongruity with her degree.

“That’s a transferable skill, which is someone who can communicate with techies even when they’re not a techie,” Everhart explained. She said that leading with that helped her make the connection to product roles for technology companies.

Putting it into practice. Opportunity@Work, a nonprofit focused on equity in the workplace, identified 51 “gateway jobs” (typically low-wage, hourly jobs, such as retail associate), as well as the skills workers in those jobs bring to the table and the higher-wage jobs for which their skills might make them well suited. The goal is to show employers who they might be overlooking by focusing on, say, college degrees, rather than demonstrable skills.

To open the pipeline, recruiters need to start by refocusing job descriptions.

“Look at pedigree- or credential-based job descriptions,” Audrey Mickahail, VP of insights services at Opportunity@Work, told HR Brew. “It’s everything but the kitchen sink…a laundry list of skills and experiences, and they’re often not particularly precise about what is actually differentiating about a job.”

Mickahail and Boyer recommended that recruiters elevate soft skills in job descriptions, list fewer skills requirements, and be open-minded about where those skills are learned.

“It’s incumbent upon employers to be pragmatic about…what trade-offs they’re willing to take,” Mickahail said. “Hiring managers and HR professionals [need] to think deeply about what predicts success in general and what are the few key things that an individual really needs to know, really needs to have experienced, before joining.”—AK

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @AmanfromCT on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Aman for his number on Signal.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.