Brushing Up on Soft Skills: 10 Lessons from Preschool

By Kristen Harris

There’s been a lot of talk about “soft skills” lately, they continue to be an important differentiating factor for job seekers, employees and employers in the current market. Beyond the technical skills and education (“hard skills”) required to do a job, employers are also looking for the traits that influence how we work individually and with our teammates. These so-called soft skills include things like being able to focus, having self-control, resolving conflict, being curious or open to new experiences, and being able to negotiate differences.

When Nobel Prize-winning economist James J. Heckman was studying the effects of job training programs1, he encountered a mystery. It seemed that many of the unskilled young workers came out of training programs no better prepared for work than they were going in, and in some cases they were actually worse. As he delved deeper into the issue, he found that the students in these training programs were not able to learn what they were being taught because they lacked a critical set of skills that would help them learn new things. And when or where would they have learned these skills originally? Preschool. Yes, that’s right. Around ages 3-5 is when most of us learn about cooperation, interaction, sharing, negotiating, paying attention and focusing, essentially learning how to learn.

Since it’s been a long time since we were all preschoolers, whether you’re a job seeker or happily employed, it may be time to brush up on those key areas. Take a look below and ask yourself how you rate. The ones you’re really good at are strengths that can be put to use every day in your work, and should be emphasized in performance reviews or job interviews. Any skills where you would not rate yourself highly can be considered areas for improvement.

1.    Paying attention
2.    Able to focus
3.    Having self-control
4.    Resolving conflict
5.    Being curious
6.    Open to new experiences
7.    Able to control temper/frustration
8.    Cooperates and interacts well with others
9.    Shares well
10.    Able to negotiate

Since we can’t really go back to preschool and start over, the best thing to do is to stay constantly aware of opportunities to use these abilities, work to improve them and observe others who use them well. In fact, if you have small children, take advantage of opportunities to observe their classroom from time to time to see the experts in action.

A SUMMARY; by James J. Heckman, Seong Hyeok Moon, Rodrigo Pinto, Peter Savelyev, Adam Yavitz; Working Paper 16180;; NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH, 1050 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138; July 2010