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Soft skills are core abilities and personal attributes that complement hard skills, that is, the technical knowledge required of an individual in the workplace. The term is often used synonymously with generic skills or social competence, though it refers in the strict sense only to key abilities that can be applied to job performance.
The term soft skills originated in the information technology sector and emphasizes the fact that soft skills are difficult to measure compared to technical skills, which have a straightforward or measurable impact on outcome. Due to the interdisciplinary character of the concept—it is used in the economic, social, and psychological sciences—a simple one-dimensional definition does not exist. There is broad consensus, however, concerning the division into intrapersonal skills and interpersonal skills. The former refer to self-regulating characteristics, such as time- and self-management, improvements in learning and performance, awareness of rights, and responsibility. The latter encompass those abilities and attitudes used in interactions with other people. Interpersonal skills can be further differentiated according to the individual’s position in the interactive situation. Firm-internal collaboration requires leadership qualities and conflict-management skills with regard to subordinates as well as successful participation in a team of peers. Communication skills and negotiation competencies are important in interactions with customers and clients and are especially required in service-related activities. The concept also comprises personal attitudes, such as self-confidence, integrity, and respect; technical abilities, such as knowledge in information and communication technology; and language proficiency, even though the latter can be measured and could equally be considered a hard skill.
For the United States, the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) represents an extensive survey of abilities required to meet existing labor demands. Commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor, SCANS identifies hard and soft skills that are essential in the workplace and ranks them according to the impact they have on job performance in different types of occupations. The survey also lists the most substantive literature on workplace skills for future research. A further important resource is the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), whose design reflects a systematic way to collect and analyze occupational information. Though both instruments show a similar categorization scheme at the broadest level, the term soft skills is not explicitly stated. Rather, SCANS uses the terms personal qualities and interpersonal competencies, while O*NET mainly uses worker characteristics. SCANS and O*NET constitute a relevant source for the development and success of education and training programs, job analysis, and job design that goes far beyond the description of entirely technical and cognitive skill requirements.
The first attempts at measuring personal and interpersonal competence can be traced to the triarchic concept of intelligence introduced by the American psychologist Edward L. Thorndike (1874-1949). Thorndike distinguished between abstract, mechanical, and social intelligence and thus allowed for a multidimensional investigation of knowledge and traits that relied on psychometric procedures (1920). The wide-ranging term soft skills, entailing highly personal and subjective traits and qualities, requires a sensitive analysis of assessment tools. A common standard of measurement at the national level is not yet available, and the instruments already existing at the microeconomic level vary with respect to the set and definition of the indicators they use. The information collected from group discussions, simulations, and psychometric questionnaires does not contain all dimensions of soft skills and only considers a small cohort of individuals. Much work has been done in the sector of information systems (IS). The personal and interpersonal skills of workers employed in the IS field have been evaluated using simulated work situations. The findings indicate that work experience does not have a significant effect on self-management strategies or interaction with peers and superiors. However, IS professionals perform better in managing subordinates and interacting with customers (Damien et al. 1999).
At the macroeconomic level, research focuses on the analysis of the impact of soft skills on earnings. Greg J. Duncan and Rachel Dunifon (1998) suggest that soft skills are as good a predictor of labor market success as are levels of formal education.
Interpersonal skills can also be used to explain gender and racial pay gaps (Borghans et al. 2005; Fan et al. 2005). Such skills have a particularly positive impact on the job performance of women. Studies in intergenera-tional mobility take account of soft skills, but the results derived so far are vague. Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis (2001) suggest incorporating personal attitudes that are relevant to economic success into the analysis of intergenerational mobility. The American sociologist Melvin Kohn argued in Class and Conformity (1969) that, at least for some traits, experiences are passed via a process of vertical cultural transmission. For example, parents who operate relatively independently in the workplace automatically transfer some of their self-regulating strategies to their children.
Soft Skills And Policy Significance
With the shift in employment from manufacturing to services and with the diffusion of computer technology and information systems, the demand for soft skills in the labor market has increased. Soft skills not only affect the tools for recruitment, they also serve as a predictor for career progression if the type of occupation enforces a high level of social competence. Education programs have been adjusted as a reaction to changing workplace requirements. In addition, studies in the economics of aging emphasize the importance of soft skills as an instrument to compensate for the decline in cognitive and physic abilities with age, since social competencies remain relatively stable over one’s lifetime. Numerous surveys indicate that training in interpersonal and communication skills raises individual productivity at all levels of qualification.
In order to assess the progressive potential of soft skills by a common standard, a clear definition that explicitly refers to employment still remains to be developed. However, the effects of soft skills in the workplace have to be analyzed with caution. Though the state of research definitely justifies and stimulates further work in this area, the socioeconomic value of soft skills tends to be overestimated. A pure focus on soft skills neglects their complementary character with respect to technical knowledge.
- Borghans, Lex, Bas ter Weel, and Bruce A. Weinberg. 2005. People People: Social Capital and the Labor-Market Outcomes of Underrepresented Groups. IZA Discussion Paper 1494.
- Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis. 2001. The Intergenerational Transmission of Economic Status: Society, ed. Marcus Feldman. Vol. 6 of International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, eds. Neil Smelser and Paul Baltes, 4132–4141. Oxford: Elsevier.
- Damien, Joseph, Soon Ang, and Sandra Slaughter. 1999. Soft Skills and Creativity in IS Professionals. System Sciences, 1999. HICSS-32. Proceedings of the 32nd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences 7: 1–5.
- Duncan, Greg J., and Rachel Dunifon. 1998. Soft-Skills and Long-Run Labor Market Success. Research in Labor Economics 17: 123–149.
- Fan, C. Simon, Xiangdong Wei, and Junsen Zhang. 2005. “Soft” Skills, “Hard” Skills, and the Black/White Earnings Gap. IZA Discussion Paper 1805.
- Kohn, Melvin L. 1969. Class and Conformity: A Study in Values. Homewood, IL: Dorsey.
- O*NET OnLine (Occupational Information Network). http://online.onetcenter.org.
- Thorndike, Edward L. 1920. Intelligence and Its Use. Harper’s Magazine, January, 227–235.
- S. Department of Labor, Employment, and Training Administration. 2000. Workplace Essential Skills: Resources Related to the SCANS Competencies and Foundation Skills. 2000. Washington, DC: Author.
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