What Do Employers Want to See from Soft-Skills Credentials?

By Parker Cellura, Marco Lepe

“Soft skills” (also known as “noncognitive,” “employability,” “baseline,” or “twenty-first-century” skills) are the capabilities and habits that affect social-emotional abilities related to communication, social interactions, and problem-solving. Credentials in soft skills—earned by passing formal assessments tied to academic courses and usually represented by a digital certificate or badge—aim to demonstrate to employers that job applicants are proficient in these skills, helping them stand out in the hiring process. One example can be found in the New World of Work’s 10 soft skill badges.[1] These “microcredential” programs exist to provide learners with new ways to demonstrate their knowledge and skills to employers less expensively and faster than traditional degree programs.

MDRC conducted a series of interviews with employers to gauge how they perceive the value and authority of soft-skills credentials and to learn what could increase their utility and credibility. Few interviewees were familiar with soft-skill credentials before their interviews with the research team. However, trends documented elsewhere suggest the practice is increasing in visibility and importance. If these credentials become widespread enough, possessing them could provide job candidates with a distinct advantage. How might soft-skills credentials get there? The interviews found:

  • Employers value credentials from reputable, familiar organizations.
  • Credentials tied to work experience are considered more reliable.
  • Employers prize transparency in the process used to grant credentials.

Employers Value Credentials from Reputable Organizations

Employers emphasized that the platforms granting credentials must be perceived as credible and independent. Since these credentials are still novel, existing platforms may lack name recognition and stature. One way to build that stature is to offer credentials through reputable and familiar organizations, such as local colleges. Employers were wary of “random internet companies” and desired recognizable names, noting that the kind of institution offering credentials matters less than its reputation. Practitioners in soft-skills education should draw on connections with familiar institutions and incorporate recognizable names, language, and imagery into the visual representation of credentials.

Soft-Skills Credentials Tied to Real-World Experience Are Considered More Reliable

Employers made clear that they value work and academic experiences that relate to candidates’ skills more than they value soft-skills credentials. One interviewee said, “It's not enough to teach [it] in the classroom. It's not enough for [students] to finish an online program. There has to be some type of an implementation process.… They have to practice [soft skills] before it really matters at all.” Programs may be able to address these concerns by having students earn credentials while they apply them in work-based learning experiences and by incorporating practical applications into the curriculum. Programs may also benefit from building ways for the employers involved in work-based learning experiences to document that students are using soft skills in a work environment. MDRC’s brief on implementing soft-skills programs in a postsecondary setting discusses these themes in more detail.

Additionally, other publications describe a disconnect between employers and students in the soft skills they believe merit training, even as both agree that courses offering credentials in soft skills would be beneficial for college students. For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation found that while 42 percent of employers felt that students should receive training in “showing commitment/accountability,” only 10 percent of recent college graduates felt the same. Soft-skills instructors can play a central role in getting students and employers on the same page about translating students’ learning objectives into practical experiences by regularly meeting with both to develop, review, and communicate how competencies in soft skills can be developed and assessed in specific real-world work environments. As one employer put it, “As a leader of students, it is important to be transparent and explicit of what is expected when it comes to competencies. The assessment of competencies should be a formal part of the performance discussion with the students.”

Employers Prize Transparency About How Credentials Are Earned

Many employers expressed concern that services granting credentials may care more about gaining revenue by offering easily obtainable credentials than about providing a rigorous or accurate assessment of students’ skills. To demonstrate to employers the value of credentials, credential-granting services and instructors should be able to attest to how students earned their certificates or badges, when they earned them, what they learned in the process, and how each certificate can be attributed to a student’s effort and skill level. They can communicate that information in part by making course-curriculum requirements, learning outcomes, and methods of accreditation publicly available. In addition, information that authenticates a credential—such as a unique identification number—can be recorded by program developers and incorporated on displays of certificates and badges.

Programs and credential-granting platforms interested in quantifying and refining the rigor of their assessments can turn to psychometric analysis, a branch of psychology that focuses on the measurement of “latent constructs” that cannot be directly observed. Tools from this discipline can ensure that a program’s assessments are effectively measuring skills mastery and can further support the credibility of credentials. For those interested in applying psychometric analysis tools to soft-skills assessment, a companion brief will outline lessons learned, limitations to the approach, and practical tips.[2]

[1]The 10 soft-skill lessons offered by the New World of Work were determined by that program in partnership with the Mozilla Foundation. The skills are “adaptability,” “analysis/solution mindset,” “collaboration,” “communication,” “digital fluency,” “entrepreneurial mindset,” “empathy,” “resilience,” “self-awareness,” and “social/diversity awareness.”

[2]Edith Yang, Peter Halpin, and Daniel Handy, “Using Psychometric Analysis to Improve Soft-Skills Assessments” (New York: MDRC, forthcoming).