By Wen Wen Teh

The nature of work is changing, and so are the skills required to be successful. While technical or ‘hard’ skills are essential for most jobs, there is growing evidence that ‘soft skills’ such as problem-solving, teamwork, and resilience play a key role in job market success. This is especially critical in low- and even middle-income settings, where employment options can be informal, scarce, and unpredictable. 

Soft skills, sometimes referred to as transferable skills, employability skills, or non-cognitive skills, are non-technical skills and competencies that help people navigate their environment, interact positively with others, and perform well in the labor market. To date, we’ve worked on soft skills development programs that include persistence, teamwork, communication, resilience, self-efficacy, and problem-solving.

Soft skills, and even qualities typically deemed ‘personality traits’ like perseverance, are skills that can be learned. This is why many workforce development programs include ‘soft skills’ and ‘life skills’ trainings as part of their curriculum. However, as we know from behavioral science, an introduction to a skill does not often lead to a person adopting and using it—decreasing the effectiveness of these programs and increasing the obstacles job seekers face as they try to stay competitive in an unpredictable market. 

The designs of traditional workforce development programs are rife with behavioral barriers job seekers must overcome before they can adopt and use their new skills in the workforce. From the hassles associated with learning about, applying to, and, ultimately, enrolling in the program to begin with, to then attending and actively participating in it, job seekers juggling competing priorities may find themselves unsuccessful at completing every step–even if they have a clear intention. And then, completion of the training is not enough, as successfully utilizing new skills requires that the lessons are salient in the moments they need to use them.

The good news is behavioral science provides a clear—and often more cost-effective—path to designing workforce development programs that help job seekers overcome such obstacles and gain the benefits the programs were made to provide. Seemingly small changes to programs, such as adjusting program timing or reframing its benefits, can have outsize impacts on successful job seeker participation when informed by behavioral science.

Here are just a few examples of some of the common behavioral barriers job seekers face with workforce programs, and some solutions that could overcome them: 

1. Program Structure and Timing

Soft skills cannot simply be learned from a book: learning them requires experiential, active learning approaches. Ample time for practice, feedback, and reflection are necessary for ensuring these skills are top of mind, especially for job seekers experiencing resource or time scarcity. Interactive trainings, such as personal initiative trainings, are an important alternative as they allow participants to learn by doing — bridging the “know-do” gap so that people are better equipped to apply the right skills at the right time. Programs should also include follow-up refreshers, reminders, and nudges such as prompts to think about soft skills, to maximize retention and practice.

2. Complex Curriculums 

All people have limited attention. The more their attentive capacity is stretched, the more difficult it is to process new information. Participants in workforce programs likely have numerous priorities in their day-to-day lives that compete for their attention. Adding in long and comprehensive soft skills lessons may be overloading participants with unnecessarily detailed and complex information that inadvertently hinders learning. Behavioral insights point to ways programs can make key lessons easier to learn, absorb, and apply. For example, using shorter formats delivered in channels that meet participants where they are. We’ve previously designed an effective mobile-based training that simplified financial management lessons into digestible rules-of-thumb for participants to follow. 

3. Priming Negative Identities

Programs may, intentionally or unintentionally, ‘prime’ identities that individuals hold, and subsequently reinforce false narratives or stereotypes associated with that identity, which could prevent learning and action from taking place. Priming could lead job seekers to behave in ways that are associated with negative stereotypes of that identity and limit their perceptions of what they can achieve. To combat this, behaviorally designed programs should promote positive self-identity by highlighting positive social norms and/or adjusting program components to account for different identities. For example, when we worked to support women in Liberia to start businesses, we found that women perceived they had limited opportunities in traditionally male-dominated fields. As a result, we designed posters portraying women in male-dominated fields, such as brick-making, construction and electronics shops, and included testimonials from previous female participants as advocates for the training.

Soft skills can add tremendous value to people seeking to stay competitive in a rapidly shifting job market, but workforce programs seeking to teach soft skills must be designed to support individuals throughout the process of learning, developing, and applying such skills. Behavioral science is a cost-effective solution for strengthening and scaling soft skills programs by redesigning the program around how job seekers really live, think, and behave.

At ideas42, we are actively looking for avenues to incorporate behavioral science insights to improve the impact of workforce development programs, and by extension the economic well-being and stability of the lives of people around the world. Interested in partnering with us to enhance the design of your program? Email us at