Developing Soft Skills: The Key to Success

by Dr. Tara Laughlin
Benefits of Soft Skills

Over the last several decades, extensive research has shown the value of soft skills development, at all levels ranging from early childhood to late adulthood.  This research has come from differing fields and researchers with widely diverse backgrounds, illustrating the tremendous value and importance of soft skills.  When analyzing hundreds of longitudinal and well-controlled studies, a variety of benefits emerge that demonstrate how critical soft skills are to an individual’s long-term success in career and life. Stronger competence in soft skills is correlated with:


The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health & Development Study has followed about 1,000 children born in 1973 in the small city of Dunedin, New Zealand through present day.  Researchers have tested these children, now fully grown adults, 13 times over the last several decades, on numerous factors such as their relationships, physical, mental and emotional health, job experiences, and criminal activity, among many others.  One particular study using this data focused on how differences in self-control, an important soft skill, could predict other success factors later in life.  When it comes to high school and college completion, the results were clear: in the top one-fifth of self-control, 95% of participants went on to graduate from high school, compared to only 58% in the lowest one-fifth of self-control (Moffitt, et. al, 2011).  Another longitudinal study, this one involving kindergartners, showed that those with the highest social competence were 1.5 times more likely to graduate from high school and twice as likely to graduate from college (Jones, Greenberg, & Crowley, 2015).


Strong soft skills also correlate with greater academic achievement. A meta-analysis of over 213 studies showed that K-12 students participating in soft skill building programs had improved academic achievement, as measured on standardized tests and their grades in school. Students who participated in the soft skills building program had an 11-percentile-point gain when compared with those who did not participate (Durlak et. al., 2011).  Another meta-analysis showed similar results with college students.  Those with stronger soft skills persisted harder and had higher grades in college. The analysis also showed that soft skills were a higher predictor of academic success than socioeconomic status, high school grades and previous standardized test scores (Robbins et. al, 2004).


Employers are seeking employees with strong soft skills, confirmed by the fact that these skills consistently top their lists of most important skills in their employees.  In a survey conducted by the Conference Board, employers ranked (1) Professionalism/Work Ethic; (2) Teamwork/Collaboration; and (3) Oral Communications as their top three desired skills (2006).  Millenial Branding’s 2012 survey showed similar results: employers’ top three skills were (1) Communication skills; (2) Having a positive attitude; and (3) Teamwork.  Further corroborating these findings, Northeastern University’s 2014 survey found (1) Communication skills; (2) Interpersonal skills; (3) Adaptability; (4) Strong work ethic; and (5) Listening as employers’ top five desired skills.

One study also showed significant differences in adult employment rates relating to the Perry preschool soft skills program.  When the participants of the study were 40 years old, 76% of those who had gone through the Perry preschool soft skills program were employed, while only 62% of those who didn’t go through the program were employed (Schweinhart, et. al., 2005).  In addition, those who had gone through the Perry preschool program were more likely to have higher incomes. The longitudinal study referenced earlier, which studied the long-term effects of high social competence among kindergartners, had similar findings.  For every point a student was scored higher in social competence, that student was 1.46 times more likely to be employed and 1.66 times more likely to have a stable job by age 25 (Jones, Greenberg, & Crowley, 2015).  


The self-control study discussed earlier, following ~1,000 children born in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1973, shows clear findings when it comes to the earnings of the participants.  The researchers found a strong correlation between students with higher self-control and higher earnings, higher socioeconomic status, higher savings and less frequency of financial hardship (Moffitt, et. al, 2011).  Similarly, Segal’s 2013 study on the self-management skills of eighth-grade boys showed that boys with strong self-management skills in eighth grade later earned, on average, 9.8% more per year than those with poor self-management skills.


In the Dunedin self-control study, the students were initially divided into five levels of self-control, from highest to lowest.  Later in life, 43% of the students scoring in the lowest one-fifth of self-control had a criminal conviction, compared to only 13% of students scoring in the highest one-fifth (Moffitt, et. al, 2011).  In the kindergarten social competence study, at age 25, those with stronger social competence were 40% less likely to have been arrested or incarcerated than their peers possessing lower social competence (Jones, Greenberg, & Crowley, 2015).


There are numerous health issues facing us today, and having strong soft skills is one proven way to reduce these risks. For instance, the OECD has found that soft skills are an important factor in avoiding obesity, even more so than a person’s cognitive skills. Gains in a person’s soft skills, from the lowest to the highest one-tenth, correlates with a 10 percentage point decreased risk of obesity (OECD, 2014).  Additionally, the Dunedin self-control study showed that children with lower self-control had a higher risk of health problems as adults, along with higher instances of drug and alcohol problems (Moffitt, et. al, 2011).


There’s good news – it’s been proven that soft skills CAN be developed, which is illustrated through several of the studies referenced above.  In some ways, learning soft skills is different than other, more traditional academic subjects.  For instance, in math, 2+2 will always equal 4.  But when it comes to decision-making, there’s not always a ‘right’ or easy answer.  With soft skills, you’ll need to take what you have learned and apply it in different life situations.  Although your approach, or the strategies you use to employ the skill, might be similar, the outcome may be completely different based on the context.


Fortunately, PAIRIN has the tools to help.  Our brand new online curriculum has all the resources necessary to help an individual develop in over 50 essential soft skills, such as decision-making, empathy and critical thinking.  Begin by taking PAIRIN’s free online soft skills assessment, which will identify an individual’s strengths and weaknesses.  From there, our system will prioritize the soft skills curriculum needed, based on the assessment results.

For instance, if an individual took the assessment and was directed to the Change module, they would then experience six micro-lessons, each focused on a unique strategy to develop adaptability to change.

The interactive micro-lessons provide lots of opportunity for practice and application along the way.  When finished, individuals can earn a badge indicating their successful completion of the module.

If you’re interested in seeing these positive results in yourself or perhaps someone in your charge, the path forward is simple. Everyone has soft skills to improve upon, and PAIRIN’s online curriculum will help you identify and develop the skills that you or those you work with need for long-lasting success!  


Casner-Lotto, J., & Benner, M. W. (2006). Are they really ready to work? Employers’ perspectives on the basic knowledge and applied knowledge of new entrants to the 21st century U.S. workforce. The Conference Board, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Corporate Voices for Working America, and Society for Human Resource Management.

Durlak, J. A., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., Weissberg, R. P., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development 82(1), 405–432.

Gabrieli, C., Ansel, D., & Krachman, S.B. (2015).  Ready to be counted: The research case for education policy action on non-cognitive skills.

Jones, D. E., Greenberg, M., & Crowley, M. (2015). Early social-emotional functioning and public health: The relationship between kindergarten social competence and future wellness. American Journal of Public Health 105(11), 2283–2290.

Millennial Branding Student Employment Gap Study (2012). Retrieved from:

Moffitt, T. E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R. J., Harrington, H., Houts, R., Poulton, R., Roberts, B. W., Ross, S., Sears, M. R., Thomson, W. M.,& Caspi, A. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(7), 2693–2698. doi:10.1073/pnas.1010076108.

Northeastern University (2014). Topline report, telephone survey conducted February 3–9: Business elite national poll, 3rd installment of the innovation imperative polling series.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2014). ESP international report: Skills for social progress. Retrieved from OECD website:

Robbins, S. B., Lauver, K., Le, H., Davis, D., Langley, R., & Carlstrom, A. (2004). Do psychosocial and study skill factors predict college outcomes? A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin 130(2), 261–288.

Schweinhart, L. J., Montie, J., Xiang, Z., Barnett, W. S., Belfield, C. R., & Nores, M. (2005). Lifetime effects: The HighScope Perry Preschool Study through age 40. (Monographs of the HighScope Educational Research Foundation, 14). Ypsilanti, MI: HighScope Press.

Segal, C. (2013). Misbehavior, education, and labor market outcomes. Journal of the European Economic Association 11(4), 743–779. doi:10.1111/jeea.12025