Learning the value of soft skills

apple on a desk

The school year is winding down and the 4-H projects are developing. Calendars are filled with plenty of activities. As I review this pivotal time, it is realistic to say a good deal of learning is taking place inside a classroom and outside of those parameters.

In the past few weeks, I have witnessed 4-H Club meetings, projects, and demonstrations. Also I have attended and reflected on the photos of countless FFA banquets with their year-end results from Career and Development competitions (CDEs). All this prompts me into discussing the importance of soft and hard skills.


To some of us, these are new terms, and even though we may have heard them before, this seems like the ideal time to ACTUALLY provide definitions.

Hard skills are your technical expertise. These are the kinds of attributes that are critical to performance and receiving scholarships, cultivating careers, and perhaps doing well at any competition.

Soft skills are more difficult to define and even more challenging to recognize. They include interpersonal relationships, problem-solving, communication, time management, conflict resolution, etc. I think of them as navigational tools that show us how to get from point A to point B. Although they are not instinctive for everyone, they can be developed. They could also be referred to as essential skills because we all need them to succeed personally, socially and professionally.

Need for both

As educators and 4-H advisors, we can focus on the hard skills, but we also must provide the platform for soft skills. They require deliberate practice and an opportunity to cultivate. Practice may not bring us perfection, but it is an ongoing process of improvement.

This is where the county fair, Career Development events, demonstrations and 4-H projects can all fill a void while instilling a sense of belonging. Sometimes I call it “finding your niche.” When it becomes a team event, we learn quickly that shared goals matter and even though frustration can occur, that common sense of purpose strengthens group and individual dynamics.

Historically, the Department of Animal Sciences has hosted FFA CDE events. Each of us involved offers our expertise and resources for a successful outcome. On some days in April, there were three events all going on at the same time. The most important detail is the connections we make with those students as prospective future Buckeyes.

The real teaching of soft skills happens long before their visit, but we hope they will recall the warm and friendly atmosphere and our mentoring on that day of pressure and stress. It also happens every time a statewide 4-H event or program comes our way.

As a land grant college, we are here for technical training, but equally as important are the soft skills that are offered to sustain growth and maturity. On occasion, at the end of an event, I still refer to the “so what” moment of the activity. It can be worth far more than a scribbled evaluation form.

Each generation will need to be taught the value of soft and hard skills, but more importantly, is the control of HOW they are introduced. If we begin with the resistance of “I won’t or can’t do it,” how do we develop the spark of “wanting’ to try something into the result of “achieving” the goal? The answer lies in our own ability to help kids feel visible and instilling that sense of belonging. It begins with our own journey, our stories and our growth.

As usual, I hope to give you something to think about, regardless of your age or role in youth development.


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Bonnie Ayars is a dairy program specialist at Ohio State University, coordinating all state 4-H dairy programs and coaching the OSU collegiate and 4-H dairy judging teams. She and her husband also own and operate a Brown Swiss and Guernsey cattle farm. In 1994, Bonnie was named Woman of the Year at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis.



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