1. Soft Skills to Pay the Bills

Soft Skills to Pay the Bills

Soft skills are everyday interpersonal skills that job seekers need to succeed on the job. They include communicating clearly and appropriately, remembering work directions, working well with others, and knowing how to solve problems. These skills will help youth succeed in life no matter what they are doing. They are necessary for youth to succeed in education, job training, independent living, community participation, and, ultimately, in the workplace.

Soft Skills to Pay the Bills is a curriculum developed by the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor to help teach youth those important soft skills or workforce readiness skills. It is created for youth development professionals as an introduction to workplace interpersonal and professional skills, targeted at youth ages 14 to 21 in both in-school and out-of-school environments. It is a modular, hands-on curriculum with engaging activities and fun games that focus on six key skill areas: communication, enthusiasm and attitude, teamwork, networking, problem solving and critical thinking, and professionalism.1 The curriculum can be used to supplement existing soft skills exercises or used on its own.

Six Key Skill Areas:

  1. Communication Skills
    Learning when and how to communicate in a business setting is an important soft skill. Most youth only experience communication as it is at home, school, or with their friends and peers. However, communicating in the workplace is very different. Youth must learn how to communicate with supervisors, co-workers, and customers and /or clients. In addition, listening is a big component of communicating effectively.
  2. Enthusiasm and Attitude
    It is important for all to be enthusiastic and have a positive attitude in the workplace. Within the curriculum, youth learn how to turn negative thinking into positive thinking and displaying and discussing enthusiasm during an interview and on the job.
  3. Teamwork
    Successful businesses rely on team players and teaching youth the elements of teamwork is another essential soft skill. In the workplace, knowing how and when to lead and follow takes practice, as does knowing how to avoid unnecessary conflict. Further, knowing how to resolve conflicts, negotiate and compromise are all important skills for everyone to develop.
  4. Networking
    Networking is essential to career growth and advancement. Networking is the process or practice of building and maintaining informal relationships or exchanges of information that are supportive of professional or career goals. Teaching youth the skills of making those connections about employment goals, interests, and desires through contacts from friends, family members, and acquaintances is an important soft skill.
  5. Problem Solving and Critical Thinking
    Problem solving and critical thinking refers to the ability to use knowledge, facts, and data to effectively solve workplace problems, as well as knowing how to use these skills in a variety of settings, including working with teams and working with disgruntled clients or customers. The curriculum teaches youth how to solve problems in a variety of ways and settings.
  6. Professionalism
    Professionalism contains many elements, including: resume creation, how to dress properly for work, attendance and timeliness, and appropriate use cell phones and computers. Further, being professional is also knowing how to communicate with supervisors, peers, customers, and / or clients. This section in the curriculum focuses on the five previous skills, but in a broader framework, teaching youth how it is important to know and use every skill for workplace success.1

Prior to the curriculum’s release, it was piloted at several sites, including those with both youth with and without disabilities, as well as those with only youth with disabilities. In addition, it was piloted at sites with only Spanish speaking youth. The pilot was found to be successful with one youth serving professional saying:

The ODEP Pilot Program was one of the best projects that we have participated in. The students learned so many skills while developing team building and leadership skills through fun filled activities. The activities addressed areas that everyone could benefit from while providing new exciting ideas. (Mary Coody, FL)

Visit ODEP's website for more information on Soft Skills to Pay the Bills and to download the curriculum in English or Spanish.

Other Opportunities for Youth to Learn Soft Skills
The Individualized Education Program (IEP) and other planning tools like the Individualized Learning Plan (ILP) in a youth’s school can be a helpful tool during the transition planning process of high school or through other formal and informal goal setting plans. Parents and other caring adults in the youth’s life can make sure that soft skill development is included as one of the goals in their student’s planning and transition tools.

Another way for parents to help their family member develop basic employment skills, including soft skills, is to ensure that youth access, learn, and understand their career interest assessments and engage in career exploration and real work experiences during the high school years. This exploration can also occur through work or volunteer experience. Research shows that work experience during high school, paid or unpaid, helps youth get jobs at higher wages after they graduate— this is true even for special populations.2

One widely used method for creating opportunities for experiential learning of soft skills combines classroom education with workplace experience. This method alters aspects of the classroom setting where general education or hard skills are being taught to workforce entrants so that the classroom simulates the workplace. This approach provides an authentic context for teaching and practicing soft skills that entails minimal costs and effort, affords the teacher control over the teaching agenda, and creates a classroom environment that benefits from the improved soft skills of its students. Classroom training is a common setting for teaching job-related skills throughout the U.S. Department of Labor’s employment and training system. It is also the setting for teaching high school students throughout the nation’s school systems.3

Federal Programs and Toolkits Aimed at Teaching Soft Skills:
U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration

  • This agency of the Department of Labor administers federal government job training and worker dislocation programs, federal grants to states for public employment service programs, and unemployment insurance benefits. These services are primarily provided through state and local workforce development systems.

Improving Demand-Driven Services and Performance: Toolkit For Effective Front-line Services to Youth

  • This toolkit contains numerous worksheets to assist youth in figuring out how to address their career goals and to develop soft skills.

Youth Information, Training and Resource Centers

  • Funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families and Administration on Developmental Disabilities, these resource centers work to increase the ability of individuals with developmental disabilities to exercise greater choice and self-determination and engage in leadership activities in their communities.

For more information, please visit:
Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy

Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration Division of Youth Services

National Collaborative for Workforce and Disability/ Youth


1U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy. 2012. Soft Skills to Pay the Bills – Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success.
2The National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth. 2011. Helping Youth Develop Soft Skills for Job Success: Tips for Parents and Families.
3U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy. 2011. Soft Skills: The Competitive Edge.