Employers prefer ‘soft skills’ to top marks

5th February 2016 at 00:00
Report finds that extracurricular achievement is more important to employers than academic grades

Employers are relatively unimpressed by formal qualifications and pupils would be more successful if schools spent more time on “soft skills”, a major research project has found.

A better grasp of soft skills, such as creativity, leadership and time management, could boost salaries by more than £6,000, the analysis finds (bit.ly/SoftSkills16).

One expert has even suggested that activities for young people outside school – from drop-in clubs to extracurricular schemes such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award – may be more important than “formal schooling”.

The report, a major analysis of research on the impact of youth work, suggests that employers do not attach the same importance to qualifications that schools do.

One survey of 5,000 business owners found that 85 per cent viewed a “can-do attitude” and soft skills among potential employees’ most important attributes; but only 27 per cent considered academic qualifications to be the most important thing.

Meanwhile, the wider population, the report finds, considers having values, confidence and motivation as more important than academic qualifications for achieving life goals.

Students taking part in activities outside of the classroom is found to be more valuable than school itself in helping “a small but significant minority” to achieve their life goals. This extracurricular youth work had made a “major difference” to around 450,000 people, the report by independent consultants Hall Aitken says.

Patrick Macdonald, the chief executive of Reconomy, a leading waste management and recycling company, explained that “over time, these soft skills have become more and more important to employers”.

“The number one things employers look for are things like the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award,” he told a conference in Edinburgh to launch the study.

They demonstrated the “commitment to see something very difficult through from start to finish”, he said.

Brian Boyd, emeritus professor of education at the University of Strathclyde, who played a leading role in creating Curriculum for Excellence, said: “Whatever we want to do in terms of empowering young people to become responsible citizens, schools can’t do it by themselves.”

He does not see “formal schooling” as more important than activities outside of school, adding that the opposite could be true.

Attempts to give visiting specialists a bigger role in school life have previously met with hostile resistance. One proposal, suggesting that non-teachers, such as artists, sports coaches and writers, could take classes on their own was condemned as “professionally inappropriate and potentially illegal” by the General Teaching Council for Scotland’s council convener. The EIS described the idea as “particularly offensive”.

This sort of resistance dismays Jim Sweeney, chief executive of youth work organisation YouthLink Scotland. He estimates that around a quarter of pupils need additional expertise to get the most out of education, and that school is a “blunt instrument” on its own.

He is “very worried” that youth work will be vulnerable to local budget cuts, and does not see the logic in teacher numbers being protected by the Scottish government while youth workers are not.

Youth workers, Mr Sweeney said, would benefit from being based in schools like careers advisors are. They could be “in school but not of school”, he said, helping pupils build up portfolios reflecting wider skills.


The teaching union’s view

Visiting experts are essential for a more rounded school experience than in the past, believes Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA).

But he is “wary” of handing over classes to youth workers; he believes teachers should be present as their professional expertise and knowledge of pupils’ personalities ensures that sessions with visitors go smoothly. Mr Searson says that the profession must guard against scenarios which “could open the door to people doing similar things to the teacher but at a much cheaper rate”.

He adds that it is possible to overstate the importance of soft skills over formal qualifications to employers.

“I wish it were the case that they would take wider skills and experience into account,” he says. But in reality, while soft skills impress in interviews, the number of qualifications still often determines who first comes to an employer’s attention, Mr Searson says.

Case study: The difference youth work can make

Shannon Carter was a teenager veering out of control, who “hated” school and teachers. Now, aged 22, she does not blame her teachers – believing anyone would have struggled to deal with her as “I didn’t trust anybody”. But she feels lucky that other professional adults came into her life, in the form of youth workers.

She grew up in Greenock and started taking drugs and drinking aged 12, initially to impress older peers but later to block out the world. “I hated myself,” she says. She would trash loved ones’ homes in furious bursts of anger and left school as soon as she could: “I didn’t think I was worthy enough to stick in and do well at school.”

Her grandparents eventually pleaded that she be admitted to a detox centre, because they feared that without intervention she would die.

Shannon credits youth workers with changing her life, as they cared about her and were passionate about their work. She now works at I Youth Zone Greenock, the same drop-in centre that helped her.

She believes that schools, like youth work projects, should focus above all else on forging strong relationships with pupils: “When they’ve got that, everything else falls into place.”

What the report says

Key findings from the Hall Aitken report, Social and economic value of youth work in Scotland: initial assessment (bit.ly/SoftSkills16)

Soft skills like those gained through youth work lift salaries by £4,906-£6,091

Qualifications can boost salaries by £2,700-£21,750

Confidence and motivation is rated by 85 per cent of employers as “very important”; only 27 per cent rate qualifications as “very important”.

Adults rank motivation (85 per cent), confidence (70 per cent) and having values (65 per cent) as more important to achieving life goals than qualifications (53 per cent)

Youth work has made a “major difference” to 450,000 people’s lives in Scotland (around 13 per cent of the population).

Youth work contributes at least £656 million to the Scottish economy, with a return of £7 for every £1 of public cash.

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