In-Demand, Under-Appreciated

Highlighting the Value of Human Skills in Higher Ed.

October 22, 2020 by Remie Verougstraete

Editor's Note: This article was last updated in November 2022.


In the discussion about skills, hard or technical skills (like programming languages or accounting concepts) tend to get most of the attention. But research continues to show that businesses value human skills (also known as soft skills, 21st century skills, etc.) at least as much as their hard/technical counterparts, even during economic downturns like the one we’re in currently. 

For colleges and universities, this presents an opportunity to highlight how the unique learning experiences your institution provides can help students develop these essential skills. For example, an environmental science degree may include long-term, collaborative fieldwork that fosters human skills like “Teamwork,” “Communications,” and “Project Planning” in addition to deepening students’ technical domain knowledge in areas like “Soil Science” or “Watershed Management.” Of course, COVID may have temporarily hampered such experiences, but even then, many institutions were already finding ways to improvise and adapt.

As with technical skills, there’s a particular way that employers and job seekers often talk about these human skills. Emsi’s open skills library captures and catalogues these terms so that institutions can apply this insight to their own curriculum and course descriptions (otherwise known as skillifying). As a result, colleges and universities can identify where these skills are taught in their programs. Just as important, they can help learners recognize and articulate this important aspect of their education, in the language of the labor market.

Case study: The value of study abroad skills in the U.S. job market

A recent report from NAFSA provides a real-life example of how human skills can help capture the value of an otherwise hard-to-quantify learning experience. In partnership with Emsi, NAFSA identified relevant “soft skills” (e.g. Adaptability, Creativity, Prioritization) and “global skills” (e.g. Culturally Sensitive, Foreign Language, Intercultural Communication) that students develop through a study abroad experience. Emsi then mapped these skills to employer demand in the U.S. as exhibited through job postings. The compelling findings demonstrate how study abroad experiences not only enrich students’ lives, but also make them more competitive in the job market by fostering key skills that employers value. You can access the NAFSA report for free to see for yourself!

A recent report from NAFSA provides a real-life example of how human skills can help capture the value of an otherwise hard-to-quantify learning experience. In partnership with Lightcast (then called Emsi), NAFSA identified relevant “soft skills” (e.g. Adaptability, Creativity, Prioritization) and “global skills” (e.g. Culturally Sensitive, Foreign Language, Intercultural Communication) that students develop through a study abroad experience. Emsi then mapped these skills to employer demand in the U.S. as exhibited through job postings.

The compelling findings demonstrate how study abroad experiences not only enrich students’ lives, but also make them more competitive in the job market by fostering key skills that employers value. You can access the NAFSA report for free to see for yourself!

Technically human, humanly technical

As skill-based approaches to education and hiring continue to go mainstream, it’s important to maintain a holistic perspective that values both the technical and human aspects of learning and work. After all, as Lightcast and Strada have pointed out before, human skills play an important role in work readiness by enabling learners to transfer their knowledge from domain to domain in the face of job obsolescence, and to learn new skills over the course of their working lives. Highlighting these critical skills in course and program descriptions is a key way for institutions to communicate the value of the education they provide, in the classroom and beyond.

What to read next

This article is part of a series exploring how higher education can adapt and thrive in an increasingly skill-based economy. Check out additional articles below, or download the complete series (plus additional content) in ebook form.

• The Significance of Skills for Higher Ed

• Why Skillify? 4 Reasons to Translate Curriculum Into the Language of Skills

A Skill-Based Approach to Creating Work-Relevant Microcredentials

• Skills AND Degrees: Adapting Degrees for a Skill-Based Economy

• Intro to LERs: Using Skills to Create Interoperable Learning Records

If you’d like to discuss transforming your own institution with skills data, let us know. We’d love to learn about the work you’re doing and explore how our data can help.