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Auckland Council The Auckland Plan

​Te whaitikanga o ngā pūkenga ngāwari

The importance of soft skills

​The term 'soft skills' describes a range of personality traits, non-cognitive skills and abilities, character traits and socio-emotional skills (Heckman & Kautz, 2012). People are not born with a fixed set of abilities and many of these skills are developed over their lifetime. 

Soft skills include:

  • critical thinking and problem solving
  • creativity and curiosity
  • communication and collaboration
  • agreeableness
  • conscientiousness
  • persistence and self-motivation
  • adaptability
  • leadership
  • social and cultural awareness
  • enthusiasm.

These skills are important for individual development, academic performance and participation in society. They are also highly valued in the workplace. 

Investment in children's soft skills

Early investment in developing children's social and emotional skills helps to:

  • establish healthy brain architecture as the brain forms
  • create a strong foundation on which higher-level skills can be built
  • provide ongoing benefits throughout life (Centre for the Developing Child, 2015,p.8).

Building these skills early can have a positive impact on all children, especially those in disadvantaged groups. 

A recent longitudinal study in nine countries conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has shown a balanced set of cognitive, social and emotional skills play a crucial role in improving children's economic and social outcomes later in life (OECD, 2015). 

The study found that in New Zealand, the impact of raising the social and emotional skills of an eight year old reduces self-reported behaviour problems (e.g. drinking, smoking, violence, fights) at 16 years old by 15 percentage points, while the impact of raising cognitive skills is statistically insignificant.

Soft skills for work

As our work environments evolve, soft skills are becoming increasingly important in a variety of workplaces.

The growing automation and globalisation of markets has seen:

  • a decrease in the proportion of middle-skilled jobs
  • an increase in the proportion of low-skilled jobs
  • more demand for highly-skilled workers (SHRM Foundation, 2014).

Employers are seeking people with a range of soft skills in both highly-skilled and low-skilled roles. 

Research has shown that the bulk of job growth in the United States from 1980 to 2012 was in occupations that require high social skills such as managers, teachers, nurses, therapists, physicians and lawyers.

It has also been found that higher-paying jobs increasingly require social skills (Deming, 2017).

Jobs in the US from 1980 – 2012 requiring social skills and math skills 

Further to this, the United States Bureau of Labour Statistics project employment to grow fastest in occupations that are difficult to automate, specifically within healthcare, construction, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) occupations (United States Bureau of Labour Statistics, 2016).

There will be increasing demand for workers who have a comparative skills advantage. Even in highly technical roles a strong set of soft skills will provide that advantage.

There are skills gaps in many OECD countries that include technology and basic literacy skills. There is also a significant lack of soft skills.

Auckland employers surveyed in 2012 stated that soft skills (or non-cognitive skills) are becoming increasingly important when hiring (Allpress, 2013) and expressed difficulties finding employees with adequate soft skills.

That study also found that some infrastructure firms reported that they could increase revenues and improve productivity more through enhanced non-cognitive skills amongst their engineers than through advances in technical skills (Boven, Carter and Smutz, 2013).

In 2017 a large number of business organisations, including Xero, ASB, Noel Leeming, Vector and Sky City, published an open letter stating their intent to hire people without tertiary qualifications.

Their hiring process would instead focus on assessment of the necessary skills, attitudes, motivation and adaptability to join their organisations, in conjunction with previous experiences in and out of the workforce.

The possibilities that technology brings are being pushed further and further every day. 

There are new occupations in fields that only recently would have been taken for science fiction, for example:

  • cybersecurity
  • cloud technologies
  • robotics
  • 'app' development
  • social media management
  • meta-data mining.

There is no certainty about the skills that will be required in this rapid changing environment.  However, soft skills, particularly adaptability, creativity and critical thinking will be more advantageous as the world of work evolves. 


Boven, D., Carter N., & Smutz, M. (2012). Fuelling our economy (PDF 1.4MB). Proposed skills agenda:. Auckland workforce skills from the employers' perspective. Committee for Auckland, Auckland [accessed 31/10/2017].

Centre for the Developing Child. (2007) The science of early childhood development: Closing the gap between what we know and what we do. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University [accessed 31/10/2017].

Deming, D. (2017). The growing importance of social skills in the labor market (PDF 453KB). Harvard University and NBER [accessed 31/10/2017].

Heckman, J. & Kautz, T. (2012). Hard evidence on soft skills. Labour Econ 2012 Aug 1; 19(4): 451–464 [accessed 31/10/2017].

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2015). Skills for social progress: the power of social and emotional skills [accessed 31/10/2017]. 

SHRM Foundation. (2014). What's next: future global trends affecting your organization evolution of work and the worker (PDF 1.53MB). Economist Intelligence Unit.

United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2016). Employment projections: 2016–26 summary (PDF 471KB)[accessed 31/10/2017].

For further information:

The World Economic Forum report on the new vision for education (PDF 8MB).

The Economist Intelligence Unit report on the learning curve.

The European Political Strategy Centre report on the future of work skills and resilience for a world of change (PDF 596KB).

Open letter to the New Zealand Public from broad business sector.