Soft skills training can and does work, new research shows

soft skills training
Girard Dorney


written on January 10, 2018

The question of whether soft skills training is ever useful – if soft skills can actually be taught – has seemingly be answered.

HRM has reported on studies showing that soft skills are currently in demand, and others that demonstrate they will only become more important. But such research fails to answer a key concern HR professionals have – can existing employees be taught soft skills, or are they innate?

Because if they were unteachable, then having organisational training would be a waste, and instead HR should focus on making sure they hire people who already have them.

MIT Sloan assistant professor of economics, Namrata Kala, partnering with colleagues at other US universities, may have found the answer. Working with Shahi Exports, a garment manufacturer, they ran a randomized controlled trial across five Bangalore factories. Not only did their training program prove effective, the benefits extended to both the company and its employees.

Soft skills in a hard job

If any type of work didn’t tangibly benefit from soft skills, it would seemingly be a job on an assembly line. Indeed Kala herself didn’t think it obvious that garment sewering would require them. But, as she explains in an MIT Sloan article on the research, it turns out soft skills are quite useful in that line of work.

“When you’re on a production line for eight hours you need to communicate with other team members,” she says. “You need to meet the deadline, and you need to listen closely to your boss who is walking up and down giving instructions.”

The results are pretty astounding. The soft skills training program returned approximately 250 per cent on investment within eight months of concluding. So it more than paid for itself, mostly through increases in staff productivity. The other factors included increased retention during the training, and short-term gains in improved attendance.

These last two seem to support the idea that training is an effective form of employee recognition, as HRM has written about previously.

Employee benefits

In a survey of women who participated in the trial – both those who’d participated in the training program and those who hadn’t – the researchers found that those who’d been trained had marginally higher incomes. More impressively, they were found to have more respect for themselves as workers and were more likely to request training for hard skills.

Outside of work, they were also more likely to save more for their children’s education and took more advantage of government programs.

What type of training was it?

It’s all well and good to say that soft skills training works, and that it delivers on investment. But what sort of training are we talking about – and how costly is it up front?

The program the workers in Bangalore engaged in ran a full year and focused on:

  • Communication
  • Problem solving and decision making
  • Time and stress management
  • Execution
  • Financial literacy, legal literacy and social entitlements

This last dot-point seems at least a little specific to the conditions of Bangalore, and might explain the fact that employees who took part in it became more likely to take advantage of government programs. But the rest are classic soft-skills, the kinds sought after in today’s job market. That the training had a pronounced impact on productivity should be enough to make all employers take note.

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5 thoughts on “Soft skills training can and does work, new research shows

  1. Good summary of classic learning question. My primary challenge is in the title about ‘Soft Skills:’ the capability and skills are not so soft!

    I am on a mission to change the reference from ‘soft’ to ‘core’ skills to accurately reflect the value and resilience the skills met brings; to individuals and companies!

    1. Hi Mark, I too have been on a mission to rename soft skills to the more description and attention gathering “intrinsic skills” – as they are so necessary for successful and effective interpersonal relationships, so glad to hear someone has the same point of view so we can reach a tipping point of consensus on this subject sooner!!

    2. Completely agree Mark. Especially on communication and problem solving. These ‘core skills’ are relevant, if not necessary, in any work place in any industry. These skills can be taught to anyone willing to learn.

  2. Intuitively, it seems obvious that ‘soft’ skills matter to individuals and workplaces where there is an absence or lack of them. While not disputing the results of the study I would be interested in the intrinsic influence of feeling ‘valued’ along with the greater disposition of women to have or seek to engage in and develop their social skills.

    While acknowledging the nature and place of the workforce it still points to the importance of recruitment, induction and ongoing development if one is seeking to realise the potential productivity through workplace engagement

  3. Such prevelant discussion about the applicability and tangible and intangible results from ‘core learning’.

    With people busier than ever and jobs demanding more from employees each day, stress, anxiety and mental health prevelant in society. Organisations have a duty of care to step up and support the well-being of their employees through these core initiatives.

    I do however question the valdity of ROI, sometimes very difficult to measure without considering impacts of internal and external environments impacting this organisation.

    Thanks for sharing!

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