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Soft skills, transferable skills, employability skills, or essential skills…

Skills, Knowledge and Behaviours

The importance of developing a set of essential skills for individuals to thrive in education, employment and entrepreneurship has been long documented.

These are the skills that almost everyone needs to do almost any job. They are the skills that make specific knowledge and technical skills fully productive (UKCES, 2009). Too often this is an area where terminology is confused and confusing. From the outset, it is important to differentiate between:

  • Knowledge: content which can be recalled, understood and explained
  • Character attributes: the choices individuals make, manifested as attitudes or behaviours
  • Skills: the ability to successfully enact a repeatable process

Whilst all three are critical to employability, our focus here is on skills, from which we define three broad types:

  • Technical Skills: skills that are specific to a particular sector or role, sometimes drawing from a particular body of knowledge. These skills are not easily transferred beyond the sector or role to which they relate.
  • Essential Skills: highly transferable skills that everyone needs to do almost any job, which support the application of specialist knowledge and technical skills
  • Basic Skills: these are literacy and numeracy, and basic digital skills.
A pyramid graphic starting with basic skills, to essential skills, to technical skills.
pyramid starting with basic skills, to essential skills, to technical skills.

Essential skills are those highly transferable skills that everyone needs to do almost any job, which make specific knowledge and technical skills fully productive. These are therefore distinct from basic skills (literacy, numeracy and digital skills) and technical skills (specific to a particular sector or role, sometimes drawing off a particular body of knowledge). In the research literature, they are often referred to as “transversal” or “higher order cognitive” skills, and are also known by many other terms outside of research:

Enterprise Skills

Soft Skills

Human skills

Transferable Skills 

Transversal Skills

Core Skills 

Key Skills  

Functional Skills  

Skills for life  

Employability Skills  

Generic Skills

Impact Skills

Power Skills

21st Century Skills

While each term has good intentions of driving forward and advocating for this critical skill set, undoubtedly the mish-mash of terminologies and definitions creates serious obstacles. It means it’s harder to set clear guidance for how to actually build these skills, but also to drive support for them. 

Defining essential skills

Skills Builder Partnership uses the term essential skills for three reasons:

  1. People need these skills to do practically any job, in any sector, in any part of the world.
  2. They are fundamental beyond the workplace, whether that’s making life decisions, navigating relationships and making personal choices.
  3. They are non-negotiable in education and throughout a child’s development. 

These skills are developed across a lifetime which makes using an accessible term important. If, say, the language of employability was introduced to parents or teachers of children as young as three years old, it would be inappropriate for that stage of their development. But when we use the term ‘essential’ from a young age and then continue this into Further and Higher Education and into employment, essential skills can be understood by all. 

To enable people to build these essential skills and support them to reach their full potential, we developed a Universal Framework in partnership with organisations including CIPD, Business in the Community, Gatsby Foundation and Careers & Enterprise Company. The Framework defines the essential skills as: 

  • Listening: The receiving, retaining and processing of information or ideas. 
  • Speaking: The oral transmission of information or ideas. 
  • Problem solving: The ability to find a solution to a situation or challenge. 
  • Creativity: The use of imagination and the generation of new ideas. 
  • Staying positive: The ability to use tactics and strategies to overcome setbacks and achieve goals. 
  • Aiming high: The ability to set clear, tangible goals and devise a robust route to achieving them. 
  • Leadership: Supporting, encouraging and developing others to achieve a shared goal. 
  • Teamwork: Working cooperatively with others towards achieving a shared goal. 

A graphic depicting the eight essential skills icons.

The Universal Framework goes beyond top level names and definitions to break down each of the skills into a series of teachable and measurable steps, from absolute beginner to mastery. 

The power of alignment

When employers, government departments, schools, Further and Higher Education and within wider society use different language to talk about skills, the result is confusing. We believe that creating a shared common language around skills is one of the key ways we can make an impact as a Partnership: aligning the language of education, social impact interventions and employers. 

We already see this working in the education system, with 87% of secondary schools and colleges in England having a touchpoint with the Skills Builder Partnership. At the same time, businesses are increasingly recognising essential skills among their workforce, using the common language of the Skills Builder Universal Framework. And beyond the UK, our global partners in 15 countries across the world are using this same common language. 

Evidencing essential skills

Once we have a shared language we can align our efforts on research too. Skills Builder Partnership recently released its annual Essential Skills Tracker 2023 report. The skills research explores the impact of essential skills on the workplace, finding evidence that they affect productivity, employability, employment and social mobility:

  • The cost of low essential skills to the UK in 2022 was £22.2bn – comparable to the cost of low numeracy. 
  • UK workers overwhelmingly recognise the importance of essential skills for success within their career, with a higher proportion (92%) identifying them as more vital than almost any other skill.
  • There is an annual wage premium associated with higher levels of essential skills of up to £4,600 for the average person.
  • From a social mobility perspective, the research revealed two groups of less advantaged workers: about 13% who, with a comprehensive set of skills, enjoy strong income, life satisfaction and job satisfaction; and 17% of workers who, with low levels of essential skills, don’t break out of the skills trap.

Discover the Universal Framework and Skills Builder approach 

Businesses looking to support skills development across outreach, recruitment and staff learning and development should take a moment to download an employer prospectus to see how being a partner could improve skills in your workplace.

For educators, our Accelerator programme applications are open for 2023-24, download a prospectus to learn more. 

Impact organisations can also explore our programme to find out how you can increase your organisation’s impact with essential skills.