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PAGE ONE Economics


Soft Skills:
Success May Depend on Them
A Primer for Young Adults Seeking Employment
Kris Bertelsen, Senior Economic Education Specialist

Labor force: The total number of workers,
including both the employed and the
Recession: A period of declining real income
and rising unemployment; significant
decline in general economic activity
extending over a period of time.
Unemployment: A condition where people
at least 16 years old are without jobs and
actively seeking work.

“Nothing ever comes to one that is worth having, except as a result of
hard work.”

—Booker T. Washington, Educator and founder of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial
Institute (Tuskegee University)

Hopefully Booker T. Washington’s words inspire you to do your best in
school, but Peggy Klaus has some sage advice as well: “Soft skills get little
respect but will make or break your career.” Peggy Klaus is a leadership
coach and the author of The Hard Truth About Soft Skills: Workplace Lessons
Smart People Wish They’d Learned Sooner. To get a glimpse of soft skills—
and their importance—imagine the following job interview scenario:
Prospective employer: I see on your resume that your GPA is 3.98.
Job applicant: Yes.
Prospective employer: That’s quite impressive.
Job applicant: Thanks.
Prospective employer: Your background in IT is just what we’re looking for.
Job applicant: Hmm.
Prospective employer: We’re looking for someone who can act as a liaison
between the users and the IT department.
Job applicant: Okay.
Prospective employer: So we need someone with great communication skills.
Job applicant: Okay.
Prospective employer: How would you assess your communication skills?
Job applicant: Okay.
Prospective employer: Well, it was nice meeting you. I don’t think our company is the right fit for you.
Job applicant: Okay.

May 2016

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis |

PAGE ONE Economics®
Wow, this applicant has a 3.98 GPA and is skilled in IT.
What went wrong? Despite great qualifications, the job
applicant didn’t get hired. Let’s look at the types of skills
you need to succeed in the job market.

Academic Skills
You undoubtedly already know that high academic performance is a key skill needed for success. You will be
expected to be knowledgeable in a range of subjects—
economics, history, science, math, and language arts,
among others. In fact, national and state education
departments and discipline-specific organizations (e.g.,
the Council for Economic Education) create content standards that define what students should know in each of
these areas. Standards are guidelines for schools to teach
literacy, math, and college and career readiness skills
consistently across the country.
As a student, you are challenged to demonstrate your
academic proficiency in various ways. Examples include
standardized exams, ACT or SAT scores, grade point averages, honor rolls, and dean’s list recognition (in colleges
and universities). These achievements are measures of
hard skills that are generally learned in school. These
assessments, recognitions, and numerical representations
of your ability will put you in the running for scholarships
and later employment, but employers look for something more: skills that go beyond academics—known
as soft skills. These skills are gaining attention—and
importance—because, according to various reports,
they are lacking in today’s workforce.

What Are Soft Skills—And Why Are They So Important?
Soft skills are your personal traits, characteristics, and
interpersonal skills that show how you present yourself
and get along with other people. The boxed insert lists
the skills you need to make a good first impression and
put your best foot forward.
Some of the skills in the boxed insert are self-explanatory.
But you may not be familiar with some skills needed to
succeed in the job market and future life. About 70 percent of businesses in a recent survey emphasized workplace professionalism as a sought-after skill.1 So, what is
professionalism and how is it assessed? Professionalism
is the consistent use of the skills, good judgment, cour-

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tesy, honesty, and responsibility expected in the business
environment. These qualities and personal attributes are
more ambiguous and much less measurable than test
scores or grade point averages. A firm handshake and
eagerness to learn new things are hard to gauge from
an application, but when people lack them, it is glaringly
obvious. Soft skills and professionalism often are synonymous. Two recent surveys have determined that workplace professionals should have the qualities and soft
skills shown in the boxed insert.2,3
In addition, employers expect prospective employees to
(i) speak effectively and communicate with others both
orally and in writing and (ii) work well in team situations.
Cheryl Wiedmaier of the Arkansas Department of Education hears of such workplace needs frequently from
industry representatives. So it is not surprising that some
skills, such as communication, appearance, and attendance, are encouraged by most organizations.4

What Is Being Done To Help Students Develop Soft Skills?
Education officials promote the integration of knowledge
and soft skills from the beginning and throughout a student’s education, so that students are college-ready and
career-ready.5 Schools, employers, and government
agencies work to improve soft skills in schools and the
workplace. Classroom activities, for example, can help
students develop the most important soft skills—those
skills previously mentioned plus enthusiasm and attitude,
networking, problem solving, and critical thinking.6
Are there other ways you can learn soft skills? The characteristics and skills listed previously are a great place to
start. You can practice these skills at home and at school.
For example, use the feedback and correction you receive
from adults as a learning tool to make improvements. If
a parent provides constructive criticism and advice on
grass mowing, make the corrections and do it better. If
your language arts teacher provides comments on your
first draft of a paper, take advantage of the feedback and
make revisions. This not only produces a nicer lawn—
and a better paper—but it also allows you to practice
essential workplace skills. Prospective employers will be
paying attention, so practice being honest, arriving on
time, and being focused and attentive. By the way, learning when it is—and is not—appropriate to use electronic
devices in the workplace is increasingly important. Be

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Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis |

How To Not Get Hired

Desirable Professional Qualities and Soft Skills

• Interpersonal skills including civility
• Appropriate appearance
• Punctuality and regular attendance
• Communication skills
• Honesty
• Focus/attentiveness
• Critical thinking and problem solving
• Leadership
• Professionalism
• Strong work ethic
• Teamwork and collaboration
• Flexibility
• Preparation for work
SOURCE: Center for Professional Excellence (see note 3, p. 11) and
Wiedmaier (see note 2).

sure to silence your phone and turn off any other devices
during interviews so you can actively participate in the
discussion. You don’t want to lose a job because you are
reading texts or email.7

Develop Your Soft Skills Now
Don’t underestimate the importance of your ability to
work well with other people.8 The boxed insert mentions
civility as a necessary soft skill. Civility is being cordial and
respectful of other people, which is especially important
because much work today is done in a team environment. In addition, workplace diversity has gained growing emphasis in the workplace.9
Group projects in school replicate real-life projects and
can help you in areas such as teamwork and respect for
others.10 Clubs and organizations help develop soft skills
through activities and competitions. Having an adult
mentor in the business community or in school is a great
way to learn valuable skills. Some companies offer, or
even assign, a veteran employee to assist newly hired
workers. In addition to mentorship, volunteer opportunities in the community or churches allow you to interact
with adults and develop these essential skills.
School work allows you to learn soft skills and hone them
with practice. Developing a strong work ethic includes


What kind of qualities can keep you from getting hired?
Remember the importance of soft skills and personal characteristics as you prepare for interviews.

Candidate with…

Percent of employers
who would not hire
the candidate

Poor personal hygiene


Inappropriate attire


Facial piercings other than ears


Inappropriate footwear


Visible tattoos


Unnatural hair color


SOURCE: Center for Professional Excellence (see note 3, p. 12).

completing homework assignments on time, doing your
best, and practicing and working hard in activities and
sports. These good habits will prepare you for college and
the workplace. Practicing these skills now also better prepares you for your current classes. Being well equipped
to enter the labor force is one of the goals of education.
So, try to gain as much experience as you can now.

Some Job Interview Tips
Ongoing surveys and research indicate that nearly all
soft skills are relevant to the interview and employment
process, but the significant impact of personal appearance cannot be overstated.11 Whether you believe it is
fair or not, personal appearance matters to future employers. So what should you focus on with respect to your
appearance? See “How To Not Get Hired” for a list of
characteristics that can make or break getting hired;
some are obvious and others not. Take personal hygiene,
for example—be sure to shower and brush your teeth.
Most employers frown on facial piercings other than your
ears and consider them unprofessional.12 Other items on
the list aren’t quite as obvious. For example, inappropriate
footwear could be as simple as wearing tennis shoes to
a formal office job interview—or more pronounced—

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Soft Skills On the Job
Let’s say you have just landed a job. How do you keep
it? According to a recent survey of business leaders, 57.9
percent of respondents said attendance and punctuality
are the primary reasons employees get fired, and 45.5 percent said that the next reason for termination is poorquality work.13 Remember, you have time to develop
desirable habits now—attend school regularly, be on
time, and do good work.


NOTE: The youth unemployment rate for the 2001 and 2007-09 recessions.
The data represent non-seasonally adjusted annual rates. The shaded bars
represent recessions as determined by the National Bureau of Economic
SOURCE: Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED®). Federal Reserve Bank of
St. Louis. Youth Unemployment Rate for the United States created from
World Bank data; accessed March 9, 2016;

wearing heels so high that they make normal walking
difficult. Inappropriate attire could mean wearing
revealing clothing. These problems are easily preventable. Remember, the people interviewing and likely hiring will be older and have a different perspective than
your friends and classmates. By asking a parent, teacher,
or trusted adult for input, you will be ready for your
The United States recently went through the Great Recession (December 2007 to June 2009). During recessions
it can be difficult for young people to get jobs and experience. As the figure shows, the unemployment rate for
young people (15 to 24 years of age) increased from 10.7
percent to 18.7 percent during the recent recession.
Higher unemployment means greater competition for
available positions, so how do you make yourself stand
out from the crowd? The answer may be soft skills. Making a good impression at an interview will increase your
likelihood of a callback.

You probably won’t see questions about soft skills on a
standardized test, but they may be as important in finding and keeping a job as how much you know and what
you can do (your hard skills). Opportunities to develop
soft skills while you are in school will help make you a
good job prospect and a better future employee. n


Casner-Lotto, Jill; Rosenblum, Elyse and Wright, Mary. The Ill-Prepared U.S. Workforce: Exploring the Challenges of Employer-Provided Workforce Readiness Training.
New York: Conference Board, 2009;

Wiedmaier, Cheryl. “Relationship Between Soft Skills and Technology,” in
K. Virginia Hemby and Robert E. Grubb, eds., Recent and Projected Technology
Trends Affecting Business Education. Reston, VA: National Business Education
Association, 2015, pp. 226-44.


Center for Professional Excellence. “2013 National Professionalism Survey:
Workplace Report.” January 2013;


Association for Career and Technical Education, National Association of State
Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium and Partnership for 21st
Century Skills. “Up to the Challenge: The Role of Career and Technical Education
and 21st Century Skills in College and Career Readiness.” 2010;

U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy. 2012. “Skills
to Pay the Bills: Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success.” 2012;

See note 3.


See note 3.

8 See

note 3.


P21 Partnership for 21st Century Learning. “P21 Framework Definitions.” May 2015;

See note 9.


See note 3.


See note 3.


See note 3.

Page One Economics® and Page One Economics®: Focus on Finance provide informative, accessible essays on current events in economics and personal
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