Five Soft Skills that help youth succeed at work

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 4.05.14 PM From Child Trends

Youth worldwide are finding it increasingly hard to enter and be successful in the workforce. Global youth unemployment stands at a staggering 75 million and the number is rising. Over the past 20 years, as the workforce has modernized around the world, soft skills-the skills, competencies, behaviors, attitudes, and personal qualities that enable people to navigate their environment, work with others, perform well, and achieve their goals-have become centrally important.

For a recent Child Trends report, Key Soft Skills that Foster Youth Workforce Success, researchers examined more than 380 international resources across multiple disciplines and held focus groups and interviews with stakeholders. The study looks at relationships between soft skills and four workplace outcomes:  getting a job or being employed, performance on the job, wages, and entrepreneurial success. There is strong evidence that the following five skills increase workforce success among youth ages 15 to 29. 

Social skills

Social skills are a cluster of skills necessary to get along well with others, including respecting others and expressing appreciation, resolving conflict, and behaving according to social norms. Social skills predict all four types of workforce outcomes (employment, performance, income/wages, and entrepreneurial success), are sought by employers, and are seen as critically important by experts in the field. A study set in New Zealand found a positive relationship between sociability and establishing relationships at age 18, and occupational attainment and work stimulation at age 26. In Great Britain, a study found that social skills measured at age 10 predicted higher wages among entrepreneurs. Employers in Egypt, India, and Vietnam seek social skills when hiring new employees.

Communication skills

Communication skills include effective expression, transmission, understanding, and interpretation of knowledge and ideas. There is evidence that communication skills are related to three of the workforce outcomes studied for youth. They are the most frequently sought skill among employers, and they were strongly endorsed by stakeholders in this project. In Europe, 35 experts identified communication as the number one skill required in the workforce and recommended its inclusion in academic curricula. In India, non-verbal skills such as recognizing non-verbal cues and body language were identified as important by employers.

 Higher-order thinking 

Higher-order thinking enables young employees to solve workplace problems independently using available resources, prior knowledge, and experience. Higher-order thinking is very much sought by employers and is critical for all four workforce outcomes in all regions of the world. For example, problem solving was identified as a top skill in employer surveys in Pakistan, Macedonia, and Lebanon. Decision-making was highly ranked by employers in both India and Brazil.  



Self-control refers to a person’s ability to delay gratification, control impulses, and regulate behaviors. Employers look for self-discipline or employees who can manage their emotions. Self-control is highly supported by rigorous literature as related to all four workforce outcomes. For example, a child’s level of attentiveness at age eight was predictive of their employment in upper-level, white collar jobs at age 42 in Finland. It is also related to entrepreneurial success. In the West Bank, a survey of young entrepreneurs nominated “patience” as a key skill for success as an entrepreneur.


 Positive self-concept

Positive self-concept was also found to be among the most important skills across all outcomes, and specifically for job performance and income outcomes among youth. Self-awareness, self-confidence, job search self-efficacy, and self-esteem are important for obtaining work in multiple countries worldwide. 


 The evidence supporting the importance of these five soft skills is strong. Their importance is backed by a solid research base and supported by stakeholders including employers, youth, and experts; there is evidence they are important across sectors and diverse world regions. Each skill can be observed in the workplace and is developmentally appropriate for youth to cultivate. Youth workforce development programs, funders, and schools can be confident that developing these skills will likely improve the chances of success for young people in the workforce.