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  • Writer's pictureDavid Deming

The Skills Lab: Measuring Soft Skills and the Basic Science of Human Potential

When surveyed, employers routinely list “soft” skills, like teamwork, adaptability, resilience and problem solving as the most sought-after attributes of employees. Yet society knows surprisingly little about how to teach and measure these skills, or how to facilitate their transfer from one context to another. Even though entrepreneurs are flooding the HR and talent marketplace with assessment products, the basic science behind soft skills is not well understood. This labor market friction introduces significant equity issues along gender and racial dimensions. A deeper understanding of soft skills will improve mobility for the workers underserved by existing inequitable systems.

Our new initiative, the Harvard Skills Lab, seeks to create a new form of measurement of soft skills and to improve the way soft skills are taught to adult learners.

Private firms build for the needs of particular customers. In contrast, the Skills Lab focuses on the basic science of human potential. We design lab and field experiments that carefully define and measure concepts like teamwork, adaptability and problem-solving. Our end goal is a better understanding of soft skills, and how they can be applied to create value and reduce labor market inequality. Our methodology initially builds on an experiment on team players, led by David Deming, and applies it to a new set of skills. The research will answer questions like: Are soft skills more important for certain kinds of jobs and tasks than others? Can these skills be taught and developed? Are these skills transmitted differently in different environments (e.g. online vs in-person)?

In this presentation, Professor Deming lays out the vision for the importance of this research agenda and the social returns the learnings will generate:

Download the team players working paper here


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