Tackling the 'soft' skills gap

How you can prepare STEM students for employment

By Murphy Donohue

Currently, U.S. employers face a major gap in employee preparedness in “soft” skills. These baseline skills account for approximately one-third of skills requested in all U.S. job postings. In technical and STEM job postings specifically, the importance of “soft” skills remains critical; with over a quarter of all requested skills considered soft skills.

The constraints of rigid academic curricula in STEM programs leave little time to emphasize skills such as writing, communication, and organization. The soft skills gap impacts the short- and long-term employment prospects of graduates of highly technical STEM degree programs.

Through a clearer understanding of soft skills and the employer skills gap, COE units can better prepare students in highly technical degree programs to meet their long-term employment goals.

How we define ‘soft’ skills

In 2015, researchers at Burning Glass Technologies provided a clearer definition of both soft and “hard” skills:

  • Hard skills most commonly refer to highly technical tasks that are unique to an occupation or industry.
  • Soft skills refer to more baseline responsibilities, which can include communication and writing in addition to broad technical skills (e.g., basic math). Due to STEM curricular constraints, these skills are commonly thought of as unteachable.

For employers, the greater struggle is to identify candidates that possess both hard and soft skills. As the researchers at Burning Glass found, employers looking to fill upper-level management STEM positions often find that candidates lack basic word processing skills, such as Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Word.

Example of Soft and Hard Skills in Engineering

Examples of Soft and Hard Skills in Engineering

Defining the gap

Employers are increasingly concerned about STEM students’ lack of preparedness in soft skills, specifically in planning, communication, and critical thinking. This lack is what is referred to in the “employer skills gap.” Burning Glass determined the size of the employer skills gap by determining the relative importance of a skill in a given occupation—using skill rankings in O*NET job profiles—and the number of job postings that include that skill. Skills with relatively low rankings in O*NET job profiles that appear most frequently in actual job postings fall into the largest skills gaps.

Previous EAB research on "T-shaped professionals" suggests it is important to confer both soft and hard skills in program curricula to ensure the development of well-rounded professionals. Students develop soft and collaborative skills as part of the T-top and highly-demanded technical skills for the T-stem. Students with a mix of T-top and T-stem skills face the most promising opportunities for short and long-term employment.

Truthfully, many employers do not include all necessary skills in a job posting. Instead many employers assume that qualified candidates already possess the technical skills needed for the job (e.g., mathematics in mechanical engineering).

The largest skills gap is found in high growth skills (i.e., skills with high demand growth between 2014 and 2015). Of the 20 most frequently sought soft skills for STEM professionals, the following experienced the greatest growth in demand between 2014 and 2015:

  • Creativity
  • Team work/collaboration
  • Quality assurance
  • Detail-orientated
  • Building effective relationships

Fastest Growing Soft Skills Sought by STEM Employers

Fastest Growing Soft Skills Sought by STEM Employers

In addition, employers overwhelmingly seek out with employees with communication skills, as it is listed in over 37% of STEM job postings. Moreover, across all occupational families, employers report that writing skills remain the largest skills gap.

Most Commonly Requested Soft Skills by Occupational Family

Most Commonly Requested Soft Skills

Plugging the soft skills gap

COE units play a pivotal role in helping to close the skills gap between students and potential employers. Below we outline the three most frequently requested soft skills, and how you can design COE programs to teach students these skills.

1. Communication skills

A foundation of communication and interpersonal skills is vital to professional success in the workplace, since interpersonal skills influence relationships and workflow with both colleagues and clientele.

COE units can help develop their students’ communication skills through group work and oral presentations. Integrate group projects into classwork to develop those interpersonal skills fundamental to building and maintaining workplace relationships. Group projects also foster collaboration, delegation of workloads, and responsiveness to peer review and criticism.

Oral presentations allow students to develop the communication skills necessary to work with customers. Consider the addition of oral presentations to non-experts into coursework to provide students with experience in public speaking and the use of nontechnical terms.

Techniques to Confer Communication Skills

Techniques to Confer Communications Skills

2. Leadership skills

Employers express a growing interest in candidates who possess strong leadership skills, but feel the skill is not reflected in students’ professional and educational experiences. For example, engineering employers struggle to find employees that have project management skills. In health care, employers most often find that employees lack sufficient supervisory skills.

Apprenticeships typically last longer than internships, include the conferral of specific industry skills, and often include formal pathways to employment.

COE units can develop internship and apprenticeship programs with top employers in STEM industries to provide students with opportunities to develop stronger leadership skills. Previous EAB research also suggests that internship opportunities allow students to experience the workplace firsthand and develop leadership skills through the emulation of the industry professionals for whom they intern.

In a survey of U.S. employers, The Economist and the Lumina Foundation found that almost 80% of respondents expressed a willingness to offer internships, and half of those surveyed also expressed an interest in apprenticeships.

Techniques to Confer Leadership Skills

Techniques to Confer Leadership Skills

3. Organizational skills

Basic organizational skills are vital to professional success across industries. Organization, time management, and effective planning allow professionals to more effectively manage workflow and communicate with supervisors about deadlines. In addition, organizational skills also allow STEM professionals to manage data and complete tasks expediently.

COE units should provide students with opportunities to develop organizational skills through extended research projects. Semester or year-long research projects provide students with opportunities to learn how to manage time, plan projects, and work within deadlines.

Techniques to Confer Organizational Skills

Techniques to Confer Organizational Skills

Pinpoint the most in-demand jobs in your state

Drawing from more than 100 million unique job postings through our partnership with Burning Glass Technologies, our regional and state market demand dashboards offer snapshots of the hottest jobs, skills, and employers across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Use the dashboard to find out how you can get a leg up in the increasingly crowded job market. Get the dashboards.


Free resource

Design programs that align with the needs of today's workforce

Get Your Copy


This is a preview of restricted content.

Full access to this content is reserved for COE Forum members. Log in now or learn more about COE Forum.

Next, Check Out

Hyper-stackable Emerging Careers

  • Manage Your Events
  • Saved webpages and searches
  • Manage your subscriptions
  • Update personal information
  • Invite a colleague