When asked which skills the children of today will need to develop to keep their jobs safe from automation, employers often highlight so-called “soft skills”, a suite of attributes that include social abilities like networking, communication, negotiation, team-building and problem-solving. At the root of these skills is how well a child gets on with others.

Now, an analysis of the latest PISA report (Programme for International Student Assessment), which assesses how 15-year-olds in OECD countries are performing in science, mathematics and reading, has revealed the countries in which children are best at “collaborative problem-solving”.

Asian countries Singapore, Japan and South Korea top the chart, with Canada, Estonia and Finland not far behind. Denmark, the United States and United Kingdom also make the top 10.

Thinking ahead

The Hamilton Project, an economic research group that is part of the US think-tank the Brookings Institution, produced a report this year that found US hiring managers were worried about a lack of both “cognitive” skills, such as good understanding of maths and language, and “non-cognitive skills” – ie the so-called “soft skills”.

The report explained: “While fewer than 20% of hiring managers said that recent graduates lacked the math skills needed for the work, more than half said that recent graduates lacked attention to detail. About equal shares of hiring managers saw deficiencies in writing proficiency and communication – the cognitive and non-cognitive aspects, respectively, of a single skill. About a third of hiring managers said recent college graduates lacked data analysis and teamwork skills.”

Image: Hamilton Project/Brookings

The Hamilton Project linked the rise in the demand for strong cognitive skills with future economic outcomes, saying that those who could develop them were more likely to be in full-time employment, while those who didn’t were more likely to be in poorer-paid jobs.

It also showed how jobs requiring strong manual and maths skills had been replaced over time by careers in services and work requiring stronger social skills.

The report said that while soft skills are to a certain extent innate, they can also be taught.

But is that really the case? And if so, just how easy are they to learn?

Soft skills and hard yards

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report 2016 argued that by 2020: “Creativity will become one of the top three skills workers will need. With the avalanche of new products, new technologies and new ways of working, [employees] are going to have to become more creative in order to benefit from these changes.”

But, whatever qualifications, experience or technical abilities today’s job interviewees may possess, employers cannot necessarily count on them having the soft skills that are now required as soon as they walk through the door.

Image: Hamilton Project/Brookings

As an article on TrainingMag.com pointed out: “There’s a subtle irony in [the fact that] hard skills are relatively easy to learn, while soft skills are often hard to learn.”

It pointed out that “hard skills are specific, teachable abilities that include technical proficiencies and are easily defined and measurable. You usually obtain a degree or diploma when you have these skills, such as software programmer, mathematician, accountant, tool-and-die maker, forklift driver, etc.”

But it adds that soft skills are less tangible and harder to quantify. "There is no degree or diploma for soft skills. They’re mostly learned through life experience on the job, such as active listening, interpersonal skills, knowing how to recognize people, and demonstrating caring concern.”

Start ’em young

Such skills are likely to be best acquired at an early age and the PISA analysis shows that some education systems are taking steps in the right direction. Finland has already moved to a model where collaboration is part of the regular curriculum and France is eyeing similar moves as it shakes up its education system in an effort to boost economically deprived children.

However, companies will probably have to recognize that while schools and universities should teach core skills, the burden of providing much of the life-long skills learning employees are going to need will fall on them.

Image: Hamilton Project/Brookings

As Vishal Sikka, the former chief executive of Infosys, wrote in the Financial Times: “Curriculums should be modernized to encourage creative problem finding and solving, and learning through doing, with mandatory computer science learning as the bedrock for enabling digital literacy.

“Organizations also need to make life-long learning resources available for employees to enhance skills development. Indeed, they should be required to dedicate a percentage of their annual revenue to reskilling staff.”