More and more researchers and policymakers are interested in whether and how a broad array of skills, often summarized as non-cognitive skills, soft skills, life skills, or socio-emotional skills, may benefit individuals in educational settings or in the labor market. A large literature in the U.S. and other industrialized countries has identified high returns to non-cognitive skills in the labor market, suggesting that individuals who can successfully develop attributes such as patience, self-control, extraversion, or high aspirations, can benefit from a meaningfully different economic trajectory (Heckman & Kautz, 2012). At the same time, this has raised the question of whether non-cognitive skills are malleable and subject to development through targeted programs that seek to develop individuals’ competencies along these dimensions.
Inspired by the evidence from industrialized countries, a growing number of research and policy collaborations in lower- and middle-income countries have explored the benefits of programs targeting non-cognitive skills by implementing interventions and rigorously evaluating them. These evaluations also generally estimate the effect of these programs on other outcomes of interest, particularly educational attainment and labor market engagement or economic outcomes. Here, I will provide a brief overview of recent evidence in this growing literature.
Interventions to reduce dropout or boost academic performance
The first set of papers analyzes interventions offered to children or adolescents enrolled in school to develop non-cognitive skills that can reduce dropout or boost academic performance. Here, the evidence for non-cognitive skills training is quite promising. For example, Ashraf et al. (2020) showed that an intervention increasing negotiating skills among adolescent girls in Zambia significantly enhanced educational and human capital outcomes over a three-year horizon. Edmonds et al. (2020) similarly reported that non-cognitive skills training reduced dropout among girls in early adolescence in a region of rural India characterized by persistently inequitable gender norms.
Another strategy of interest is interventions targeting aspirations (for children or their parents) and seeking to increase investment in education and boost educational goals. Here, the results are more mixed. For instance, Bernard et al. (2019) found a short video-based intervention in Ethiopia targeted at parents significantly increased children’s enrollment and parental investment in schooling. However, Kipchumba et al. (2020) found that visits by role models (college students) to primary schools in Somalia did not significantly increase aspirations, though the visits persistently shifted gender norms when a female role model visited.
Intervention to engage youths in the labor market
The second set of papers includes interventions targeting broadly defined youth, particularly those who are out of school and seeking to enter the labor market. Here, the results are generally discouraging, though there is some evidence of positive effects on skills in some contexts. For example, Acevedo et al. (2020) evaluated a soft skills training program offered to young job-seekers in the Dominican Republic (also offered in conjunction with vocational training). They found a persistent increase in soft skills (perseverance, ambition, leadership, conflict resolution, social skills, organization, and communication) for women but no long-term effects on labor market outcomes for men or women. Also, Bhanot et al. (2021) analyzed a life skills training (also offered in conjunction with cash grants for community service projects) in Kazakhstan. They again found no significant effects on life skills, social capital, or labor market outcomes. Similarly, evidence from Jordan suggested that soft skills training offered to female community college graduates had no effects on soft skills (self-reported well-being, mental health, and empowerment) or labor market outcomes, though there is an increase in reported mobility (Groh et al., 2016).
Intervention to engage adults facing economic challenges
What about targeting poor adults more broadly and encouraging them to develop soft skills or psychological competencies? Here, the evidence is quite nascent but suggests that only on-the-job interventions are promising thus far. For example, Baranov et al. randomly assigned individuals (not necessarily youth) in an informal settlement in Nairobi to engage in several light-touch psychology exercises, such as exercises to count one’s blessings and engage in self-affirmation, but found no effects on aspirations, psychological well-being, self-control, or any economic outcomes. Another group-based psychological intervention developing general self-efficacy for women in rural Uttar Pradesh, India, found that the program significantly increased self-efficacy. Still, the effect on labor market outcomes was only short-term, suggesting a broader limiting effect of social norms (McKelway, 2021). Lastly, on-the-job soft skills training offered to female garment workers in India did significantly increase their extraversion and communication skills and enhanced their productivity, though these benefits accrued primarily to the employer; there was only a modest increase in wages for workers (Adhvaryu et al., 2018).
Intervention to target stigmatized populations (e.g., sex workers, people with HIV)
However, some evidence suggests that interventions developing soft skills can be particularly effective for sub-populations that face more acute challenges linked to stigma or self-esteem. For example, both female sex workers in Kolkata and women living with HIV in Uganda experienced economic and non-economic benefits from interventions targeting high levels of stigma for these populations and aiming to increase their self-esteem and aspirations (Ghosal et al., 2020; Lubega et al., 2021). Also, Blattman et al. (2017) similarly found that cognitive behavioral therapy targeting non-cognitive skills and preferences substantially reduced participation in crime and violence among at-risk Liberian young men with a history of engagement in criminal activity, at least in the short term; the effect was persistent when therapy was offered in conjunction with cash.
In conclusion, the literature thus far suggests that interventions targeting soft skills can be effective when delivered to youth to enhance their educational performance, in on-the-job training, or when delivered to populations facing particularly acute stigma but seem less effective in other contexts. In the future, researchers and policymakers would benefit from learning more about strategies to shape these skills and from identifying the most effective interventions (and less effective interventions) for different populations. Understanding the cost and cost-effectiveness of these programs is also an important area for inquiry; some successful programs (such as negotiation training in Zambia) are quite light-touch, while some are more intensive. Ultimately, identifying viable options to strengthen soft skills in lower-and middle-income countries may not only boost these skills but enhance individuals’ lives and livelihoods along with a range of dimensions.
Jessica Leight is a research fellow in the Poverty, Health, and Nutrition Division at International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Her research agenda focuses on human capital accumulation for women and girls as well as agricultural institutions and structural transformation. She is a special guest in our blog series about the development of #skills21 in Latin America and the Caribbean.
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