1 in 3 Americans Says Soft Skills Are Most Important in Current Job Market

1 in 3 Americans Says Soft Skills Are Most Important in Current Job Market
portrait of Anne Dennon
By Anne Dennon

Published on May 5, 2021

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According to a new BestColleges.com survey, Americans value soft skills, like communication and creative problem-solving, over either trade-specific skills or hard skills. While most believe the skills they use in their careers came from on-the-job experience, Americans with college degrees use soft skills the most frequently and make more money overall.

In a national survey of 2,574 American adults aged 18 and older, 41% reported using soft skills most frequently in their current or most recent jobs. Just 20% use trade-specific skills (such as knowing how to operate certain machines or tools) most frequently, and 11% use hard skills (such as coding, technical knowledge, and lab skills) most frequently.

Despite the surge of interest in vocational training and STEM education — which support the development of trade skills and hard skills, respectively — more Americans predominantly use soft skills (41%) and feel soft skills are most important on the job market (34%). Fewer Americans believe trade-specific skills (26%) or hard skills (22%) are most important.

Students are even more likely than the average American to suggest that soft skills hold stronger value. Well over 1 in 3 students (38%) consider soft skills to be most important in the current job market. By contrast, less than a quarter (21%) say hard skills make applicants most competitive. Just 11% say trade-specific skills are most important.

Use of Soft Skills Correlates With Steady Employment

The use of soft skills in the workplace positively correlates with both employment and income. A full half (50%) of working Americans say they use soft skills the most frequently of all skill types in their current or most recent jobs, compared with 37% of unemployed and temporarily unemployed Americans.

Unemployed and temporarily unemployed respondents are significantly less likely than those working full or part time to have predominantly used soft skills. Unemployed and temporarily unemployed individuals are also less likely to have used trade skills or hard skills, with 29% saying none of the skills are applicable to their last job or that they have never been employed. Over a quarter (26%) of unemployed and temporarily unemployed respondents had a high school diploma or less.

Despite the persistent gender pay gap, nearly half (46%) of women surveyed say they use soft skills most frequently in their current or most recent jobs, compared with just 36% of men. Men are twice as likely as women to say they use trade-specific skills most frequently in their current or most recent jobs (27% vs. 13%).

The newly volatile job market underscores the connection between reliable employment, soft skills, and higher education. Americans with degrees are far more likely to still be employed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One-Third of Americans Say Skills Come From On-the-Job Experience

Soft skills are often considered a byproduct of a college education — many link critical thinking and communication skills to the essay-writing and class discussions of the liberal arts. Overturning this assumption, a 33% plurality of Americans most associate the development of the skills they use in their current jobs with on-the-job experience, rather than with college or other more formal learning paths.

Overall, one-third of Americans say they mainly developed their relevant professional skills through work experience, while just 19% developed their skills through higher education. Only 1 in 10 respondents reports developing their skills through self-directed learning and employer-provided learning.

More Than 1 in 4 American Workers Are Unsure How to Gain Skills

More than one quarter (27%) of the American workforce say they've been turned down for positions or promotions because they lacked the skills expected by their employers. Not possessing the requisite skills is one challenge — acquiring the skills is another.

A lack of understanding and planning around skills development holds many Americans back professionally. While half of workers (50%) report having a plan to develop skills for the careers they want, 13% have no such plans. About one-fourth of the current workforce (27%) aren't sure they know how to acquire the skills they need.

Education appears to support people's confidence when it comes to developing and demonstrating skills. The higher their education level, the more likely Americans feel that they can identify the skills employers are looking for in their fields, and that they have the skills needed to achieve their career goals.

While graduates have higher confidence in their skills, many current students feel neutral on the subject of work skills. Less than half agree that they have the skills their goals require. Nearly 40% neither agree nor disagree that they are able to identify what those skills are. Nevertheless, the majority (63%) have a plan to acquire skills to reach their employment goals.

Education Level Impacts View and Use of Soft Skills

Soft skills may come through experience, rather than education, but it takes higher education to unlock the careers that center on soft skills. The higher their education level, the more likely workers are to use soft skills on the job — and the higher their salaries.

Americans who have a high school diploma or less are more likely to say trade-specific skills (30%) are most important for the current job market, compared to soft skills (25%) or hard skills (20%). Meanwhile, around 2 in 5 Americans with a bachelor's degree (42%) and over half of those with a graduate degree (54%) feel soft skills are most important.

Millennials Most Likely to Rely on Education Over Job Experience

Older generations are more likely than younger generations to say they developed the skills they use in their current or most recent jobs through on-the-job experience. The share of individuals who have relied on experience versus education for their work skills inverts following Generation X.

Fewer than 1 in 5 Gen Xers (18%), baby boomers (18%), and members of the silent generation (16%) developed their skills through higher education; instead, around 1 in 3 developed them on the job.

Twenty-two percent of millennials — an age group that includes the highest percentage of recent college grads — say they have developed current work skills through higher education.

Research shows that many college graduates lack soft skills: essential, adaptable traits like creativity and critical thinking, along with more specific skills that require equal development, such as dealing with conflict and applying critique.

According to Melissa Venable, Ph.D., an education advisor for BestColleges.com, "skills development varies among college students" and is impacted by factors like major, course selection, extracurriculars, and internships. Some college students may not encounter serious tests of their social skills until their first job post-graduation.

In today's shrunken job pool, college grads are competing for fewer "good" jobs — those better-paid positions that tend to require bachelor's degrees and center soft skills. Taking a first job out of college that doesn't require a degree could hamper graduates in developing the soft skills they need to prepare for their next job, and the rest of their careers.


All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. The total sample size was 2,574 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken April 7-9, 2021, and the survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all U.S. adults (aged 18+).

Feature Image: Luis Alvarez / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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