Why Are Soft Skills Important in Youth-Focused Agriculture?

September 29, 2021


growing vegetables without chemicals

This post was written by Olga M. Merchan and is part of Marketlinks' and Agrilinks' joint Youth Employment Month. It originally appeared on Agrilinks.

The changing and evolving nature of work of today demands that young people acquire the skills that will allow them to easily adapt to the roles, skills, and jobs of tomorrow. How can young people prepare for a future that few of us can define today? The answer in part lies in the development of a broad set of skills, behaviors, and personal qualities known as soft skills.  

What are “soft skills,” and how are they developed?

Simply put, soft skills refers to a broad set of skills, behaviors, and personal qualities that enable people to effectively navigate their environments, relate well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals. They are composed of, but not limited to, problem-solving, critical thinking, decision­‐making, self-control, communications, and social skills. 

The human brain’s malleability, as well as its ability to change and adapt, particularly during adolescence and youth, makes this an ideal life stage for soft skills to be learned and fostered. Young people can develop soft skills in a variety of ways, such as learning by doing and interacting with others through work experience, volunteering, community service, and playing sports. On-the-job training, work experience, internships, and work-study programs are all examples of teaching both hard (technical) and soft skills in the workplace. Soft skills complement technical, vocational, and academic skills and should be acquired in tandem. Approaches to developing soft skills need to be adapted by age, gender, and context, but research supports early introduction to these skills and reinforcement over time as youth age.

It is very important that youth learn and demonstrate soft skills in diverse ways across contexts. Cultural notions about an individual’s place within society color how these skills are understood, articulated, and enacted. Soft skills are also shaped by an individual’s environment, including families, schools, and peers. For example, youth living in conflict and crisis-affected settings often rapidly assume additional responsibilities for their own and others’ survival without adequate support. Amid social upheaval, they develop skills such as leadership, decision-making, and conflict management, which help increase their confidence, self-efficacy, and resilience. An individual’s growth and achievement in these areas often improves the status of youth overall in the eyes of their communities and inspires belief in young people’s capabilities. 

Links between soft skills and youth employment

The importance of supporting the acquisition of soft skills for the changing nature of work is recognized by scholars and academia as a means of enhancing creativity, providing independence and strengthening communicative skills, knowledge, and understanding. Developing soft skills, such as an aptitude for teamwork, empathy, conflict resolution, and relationship management are crucial for finding and keeping jobs. Evidence supports strong links between soft skills and youth employment outcomes. For example, a recent study in sub-Saharan Africa (see resource below) examined the linkages between soft skills training and youth workforce development outcomes and found that “leadership, conflict resolution, negotiation, and management skills have long-term positive effects on self-employment,” particularly for women.

Soft skills can transcend the impacts of technology on jobs

While young people’s access to modern technology and innovation can enhance their productivity and employment prospects, automation impacts tasks and activities within occupations, and technology-induced job losses can occur. Despite fears of displacement of workers in some sectors, however, recent estimates indicate that the fear of automation replacing workers in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries has been overstated. Although we have already seen automation replacing those workers doing routine, methodical tasks, emerging technologies will also create jobs that will likely require workers with problem-solving, leadership, empathy, and creative skills. In other words, soft skills are unlikely to be automated anytime soon.  

An emphasis on the value of lifelong learning also protects new entrants into the labor force. Successful adaptation to disruptions from technological advancements will depend on young people’s ability to understand and assess their own learning style and develop the self-discipline and determination to grasp new skills. Formal (e.g., vocational training and certified courses) and informal education settings (e.g., work-based learning, apprenticeships, design thinking, and makerspaces) can help youth develop the skills needed in the labor market, as well as the skills and commitment needed to keep those skills up-to-date.

Youth, soft skills, and market linkages in agriculture

There is no denying that advancements in technology have increased productivity and efficiency in the agricultural value chain. Automation, robotics, and digital tools are dramatically changing the nature of farming activities. Digital innovations in mechanization technologies can make agriculture more attractive to rural youth. A growing body of evidence suggests that information and communications technology (ICT), specifically mobile phones and digital tools, are attracting youth and entrepreneurs into the sector.

While accessibility and affordability challenges may be key reasons why smallholder farmers, regardless of age, are not embracing these technological advancements, lack of soft skills may be the biggest constraint. Soft skills such as adaptability and openness to new ideas, experiences, and technologies are needed in order to accept technological change as an opportunity, and view it positively. Here are some examples:

  • In the Asia region, through the Tech4Farmers Challenge, the Feed the Future Asia Innovative Farmers Activity (AIFA) works with young people to provide them with tools to share new knowledge, communicate clearly and collaborate with other stakeholders, negotiate with potential buyers, and participate in policy dialogue discussions. Implemented by Winrock International, the project collaborates with a range of public and private sector partners to foster innovation and transfer technologies from within the region to supply chains in horticulture and aquaculture in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Nepal.  
  • In Guatemala, teamwork, responsibility, communication, self-esteem, and persistence are some of the soft skills that young Guatemalans from San Marcos are acquiring at Catholic Relief Services (CRS)’s PROCAFE program. They are sons and daughters of coffee growers who CRS has trained to become Q-rated coffee cuppers, who evaluate coffee quality. During harvest season, farmers use the services of PROCAFE to have their coffee professionally cupped and scored. A higher score means better profits. By analyzing the tasting notes and temperament of the farmers’ coffee, these youth have the capacity to suggest methods that the farmers can use to reap a higher quality harvest in the year to come. The combination of both technical and soft skills are allowing participants in this program to be sought after in positions that will allow for professional development and a pathway toward growth in the industry. 

Constraints on access to land, finance, technology and education are some of the challenges faced by rural youth. Yet, the nature of work is changing faster than ever before, creating a demand for new sets of skills. Thus, it is imperative to foster the soft skills in young people that will help today’s youth adapt and increase productivity to meet the demands of tomorrow in an ever-changing world.


Sub-Saharan Africa Study: Rosekrans, K. and Hwang, T. (2021). Soft Skills and Youth Workforce Development in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Review of the Literature. Dexis Consulting Group.