Our education system tends to organise around technical skills – but soft skills deserve equal weight.

The school curriculum is divided into subject streams like mathematics and history. VET teaching teams and departments deliver domain specific skills like technical drawing or hairdressing or accounting. Training packages are designed with technical skills front and centre. Higher education programs are similarly organised.

There’s no doubt technical skills are critical for individual futures and for the industries we serve, from hospitals and superannuation to plumbing and logistics. Yet industry increasingly relies on competence in another domain of skills that goes by various names, including employability skills, soft skills and enterprise skills.

Soft skills are not an optional extra

In May, Deloitte Access Economics released Soft skills for business success (44 pages), a report that usefully identifies soft skills in demand, including critical thinking/problem-solving, creativity, communication, collaboration, curiosity, initiative, persistence/grit, adaptability, leadership, and social and cultural awareness. The report underlines how important this suite of skills is, and it identifies the skills gap. For example, the report presents data to show that:

‘Despite being the most commonly listed soft skill, communication skills remain in most short supply, with a 45 percentage point difference between demand (71%) and reported supply (26%).’

The distinction between soft skills and technical skills is important, but the report leaves no doubt that we need both, referring to research by Victoria’s Department of Education and Training which found that

‘… of 5,700 businesses surveyed, nearly one third identified a lack of skills within their businesses now or within the next 12 months. Of these, just under half reported soft skills as a skills shortfall, second only to job specific technical skills.’

Demand for soft skills challenges traditional VET provision

The Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) has examined the future of work in a series of excellent reports, including The new work mindset: 7 new job clusters to help young people navigate the new work order (28 pages). To take one cluster as an example, The Artisans includes jobs requiring skill in manual tasks related to construction, production, maintenance and technical customer service. Enterprise skills commonly sought by employers for The Artisans cluster are detail orientation, planning, problem solving, digital literacy, capacity to train others, communication skills and team work.

FYA’s report offers two recommendations for educators that cut across the current organisation of our education systems:

  • University, VET and TAFE providers could consider designing curriculum to support the core skills requested in each job cluster.
  • Course information could better identify the many different jobs that specific courses prepare young people for, rather than single occupations.

It seems likely that industry demand for soft skills will translate into more pressing demands for VET providers and practitioners to adopt new approaches to developing and assessing soft skills that are both explicit and reportable.