Building Life Skills for Career Readiness and Workplace Success

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Finding success in today’s workforce is difficult without life skills such as relationship-building, problem-solving, responsible decision-making, social awareness, and self-management. Research-based personal and interpersonal skill-building for students (often referred to as social-emotional learning) can lead to improved outcomes at school and later success in the workplace.1

Careers that require the mastery of personal and interpersonal skills have outpaced the growth of all other occupations—and employers increasingly look for these skills in their employees.2

Employers highly seek employees with:

  • Personal skills such as integrity, initiative, dependability and reliability, adaptability, and maintaining a positive attitude3,4
  • Interpersonal skills such as communication, collaboration, and respect3,4,5
  • Workplace skills such as problem-solving and decision-making3,4,5
  • The ability to work in a team, which ranked as the second most desirable attribute of new college graduates, after only leadership skills6

Ten of the top 15 skills identified by the World Economic Forum as the most important for employability in 2025 involve personal and interpersonal competence: analytical thinking, active learning, problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, leadership, resilience and flexibility, emotional intelligence, service orientation, and negotiation.7

However, employers report difficulty finding employees with adequate skills:

  • Nearly 80 percent of employers identified personal and interpersonal skills as being the most important qualities needed for success—and at the same time, the hardest qualities to find in the labor force8
  • More than 50 percent of employers said they had trouble finding recent graduates who possessed skills—like communication, adaptability, decision-making, and problem-solving—needed to do the job9
  • Ninety-five percent of CEOs reported they have problems finding candidates with the personal and interpersonal competencies and training to fill open positions at all skill levels10

Policy Recommendations

  • Incentivize and support the inclusion of research-based personal and interpersonal skill-building
    programs in preschool, elementary, and secondary schools as well as career and technical education programs, colleges, and universities.
  • Ensure access to funding for personal and interpersonal skill-building instruction that is adequate, prioritized, and applied with high-quality controls.


  1. Taylor, R.D., Oberle, E., Durlak, J.A., & Weissberg, R.P. (2017). Promoting positive youth development through school-based social and emotional learning interventions: a meta-analysis of follow-up effects. Child Development, 88(4), 1156-1171.
  2. Deming, D. J. (2017). The growing importance of social skills in the labor market. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 132(4), 1593-1640.
  3. Association for Career and Technical Education, National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium, & Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2010). Up to the challenge:
    The role of career and technical education and 21st century skills in college and career readiness
  4. National Network of Business and Industry Associations. (2014). Common employability skills: A foundation for success in the workplace: The skills all employees need, no matter where they work.
  5. Adams, S. (2014, November 12). The 10 skills employers most want in 2015 graduates. Forbes.
  6. National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2019). Job Outlook 2020.
  7. World Economic Forum. (2020, October). The Future of Jobs Report 2020.
  8. Cunningham, W., & Villaseñor, P. (2014). Employer voices, employer demands, and implications for public skills development policy. Policy research working paper WPS 7582. Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group.
  9. Fischer, K. (2013, March 4). The employment mismatch. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  10. Business Roundtable. (n.d.). Closing the skills gap.