Closing the soft skills gap

Recent Bellevue University research shows soft skills assessment needs leader investment and objective evidence

By Tim Harnett

Soft skills are critical for business success. They have the power to deliver substantial returns — a recent MIT and Boston College joint case study found an in-house soft skills training course brought a 250 percent return on investment.1 Yet there’s a commonly held belief that soft skills are non-measurable,2 which might hinder efforts to incorporate soft skills training into other initiatives. Learning leaders are convinced of the need to develop soft skills at their organizations. How do they go about it? To discover the answer to this question and more, Bellevue University partnered with Chief Learning Officer magazine for the Making the Business Case for Soft Skills survey. While full survey results will be published in a forthcoming white paper, here’s a snapshot of what nearly 600 learning leaders told us about the state of soft skills at their organizations.

There’s a widening gap between the soft skills employees have and what organizations need

On the survey we asked respondents to identify skills at their organizations in the following areas: soft skills,3 technical skills4 and functional skills.5 Learning leaders are almost three times more likely to report a substantial or critical skills gap in soft skills compared to either technical or functional skills (Figure 1). Also, 31 percent of respondents say the skills gap for soft skills has been widening over the past two years. For these organizations, something needs to change.

Figure 1: Substantial/critical gaps between employee skills and organizational needs

Some organizations are ahead of the curve in their adoption of soft skills initiatives

On the survey, we asked the question: “How satisfied are you with the current learning solutions your organization uses for soft skills?” Learning leaders self-reported that some of them are in the vanguard when it comes to soft skills adoption and assessment. Are there any noticeable differences among vanguard members? We compared the answers of the 26 percent of respondents (who we’ll call soft skills leaders) who are either satisfied or very satisfied with their current solutions versus the 74 percent either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied about their current learning solutions (soft skills starters). According to the data, leaders have several different approaches from the starters, which lead to better measurement outcomes and a better business case for teaching, investing in and applying soft skills.

Objective metrics help make the business case for soft skills

For soft skills leaders, integrating training into learning initiatives isn’t enough. To be successful with soft skills training, organizations identify metrics and objectively measure program effectiveness. Currently, many assess soft skills abilities in subjective ways — through self-assessment, survey questions or customer complaints. Such data points are unreliable for truly measuring employees’ soft skills. Organizations need better data points.

While the data show there are no universally used models or tools for soft skills evaluation, it’s important for organizations to commit to gathering data as a start. Among leaders, nearly 90 percent gather some data related to soft skills, compared to only 64 percent of starters. Soft skills leaders are also more likely than starters to use objective metrics to assess the efforts of soft skills.

Metrics related to productivity and formal assessments can objectively test how employees use soft skills, while manager ratings provide a more unbiased opinion of employees’ soft skills than asking employees to evaluate their own performance. Leaders are two to three times more likely to use these more objective methods than starters (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Metrics used to track soft skills

The importance of soft skills cannot be overstated. Training ensures soft skills become an important part of an employee’s toolkit, which will help organizations meet their business goals. To achieve success with soft skills initiatives, L&D leaders should build soft skills development into other types of training. Just having training isn’t enough, either; effective measurement with metrics that go beyond anecdotal evidence of soft skills mastery should be in place. Objective metrics will better position L&D leaders to make the business case for soft skills to senior leaders, helping to ensure buy-in and budgetary priority for soft skills training. Organizations satisfied with the outcomes of their soft skills training recognize this, and their measurement efforts have enabled many of them to make the business case for soft skills to their leadership team.

Learn more about Power Skills at

To read the full results of this research, download the whitepaper at

1 Walsh, D. (2017). “Soft Skills Training Brings Substantial Returns on Investment.” MIT Newsroom.

2 Doepke, P. (2018). Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills (and How to Use Them on Your Resume). Jobscan.

3 On the survey, soft skills were defined as skills related to communication, teamwork, collaboration, work behavior, problem-solving and critical thinking.

4 Technical skills were defined as skills related to technology and hands-on performance including programming, mechanical equipment or tools.

5 Functional skills were defined as skills related to industry and organizational knowledge, English, math and computing.

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