In the dynamic and complex job market of the modern world, both hard and soft skills have become increasingly important for individuals to succeed in their professional lives. Hard skills refer to the specific technical knowledge and abilities required for a particular job or industry that an individual acquires through formal education, training, or experience, such as proficiency in computer programming or proficiency in a foreign language. These skills are easily measurable and quantifiable, and they can be taught in a classroom, through online courses, or on-the-job training (Investopedia, 2022). Examples of hard skills include computer programming, data analysis, project management, and language proficiency. On the other hand, soft skills are interpersonal and emotional abilities that allow individuals to interact effectively with others and adapt to new situations, such as communication, leadership, teamwork, and problem-solving (Cambridge Dictionary, n.d.). These skills are not easily measurable, and they are often referred to as people skills or interpersonal skills, yet the role of those skills in the modern workplace is colossal. While previously more attention was traditionally focused on the development of hard skills, recent decades brought increased recognition of soft skills as well. For instance, OECD (2015) named soft skills – “skills for social progress” and “21st-century skills”, emphasizing their ever-increasing significance.
The role of higher education institutions in developing these skills is essential as they prepare students for the job market. Employers are looking for graduates who possess both hard and soft skills. Hard skills demonstrate the technical expertise required for the job, while soft skills show how well the graduate can work with others and handle tasks effectively. Therefore, it is critical for higher education institutions to offer courses and training that develop both hard and soft skills among students. Thus, in countries with long and rich academic histories, their higher education systems have always worked as platforms for students to acquire both hard and soft skills through classroom instruction, practical work experience, and extracurricular activities. Some of the most widely adopted ways that higher education institutions help students develop hard and soft skills include:
Higher education institutions develop curriculums that equip students with both hard and soft skills. The curriculum is designed to provide students with the necessary technical knowledge and skills needed in their chosen profession. At the same time, it also offers courses that develop soft skills such as communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving;
Higher education institutions offer co-curricular activities such as sports, clubs, and volunteer work that help students develop their soft skills. For instance, being part of a sports team helps students develop teamwork, leadership, and time management skills;
Internships provide students with an opportunity to apply the technical knowledge and skills learned in the classroom to real-world situations. It also enables students to develop soft skills such as communication, adaptability, and problem-solving;
Research opportunities allow students to develop both hard and soft skills. Conducting research requires technical expertise, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. At the same time, it also improves communication skills, teamwork, and time management;
Higher education institutions collaborate with industry partners to provide students with an understanding of the current trends and needs of the industry. These collaborations provide students with an opportunity to learn from professionals and develop the necessary hard and soft skills needed to succeed in their chosen profession.
However, while the higher education system is expected to equip graduates with all of the necessary tools, the real-world status quo may differ significantly from these expectations and the degree of such difference varies highly between countries, based on their social, economic, political, and even cultural backgrounds and contexts. While many developed nations have been addressing the issues of simultaneous development of both hard and soft skills of their students for decades now, the majority of developing countries are still in the process of integrating more recent concepts, such as soft skills, into their educational systems. Such a large academic difference can be explained by the dissimilarity of countries’ labor markets and economies in general. Regarding Kazakhstan, the situation with hard and soft skills and their development within the local higher education system is best reviewed separately, as Kazakhstan can be perceived as one of the examples of countries that still value hard and soft skills very differently.
Firstly, regarding the development of hard skills of Kazakhstani students, it is important to mention that currently, no objective international system of students’ hard skills evaluation exists. The closest analog to that would be PISA – an international study, which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students in participating countries (OECD, n.d.). While Kazakhstan regularly performs much below the OECD average during PISA exams, these results only demonstrate the level of school education in the country and cannot be extrapolated to the tertiary education system. Global university rankings are also only partially helpful in the assessment of the local higher education hard skills development situation, as many of the criteria that they use to place a university in the ranking are unrelated to the skills of graduates as the rankings rely heavily on quantitative indicators and proxies for statements about universities’ quality (Kehm, 2013).
Therefore, it is only possible to evaluate the hard skills development capabilities of local universities based on indirect factors, such as funding and labor market assessments. For instance, while there has been an increase in the number of STEM graduates in Kazakhstan, there is still a shortage of highly skilled professionals in many fields, including engineering and information technology (Galushko, 2023). This is due in part to a lack of opportunities for students to gain practical experience in their chosen fields. While many universities offer internships and work-study programs, these opportunities are often limited and do not provide students with the level of experience needed to compete in the job market. Another challenge in the development of hard skills is the quality of instruction. While many universities offer programs in STEM fields, the quality of instruction can vary widely. Some universities lack the resources to provide state-of-the-art equipment and technology, while others struggle to attract and retain highly qualified faculty members. This problem arises from the lack of funding for local education. As can be observed from the World Bank data (2020), Kazakhstan’s government expenditure on tertiary education per student (as a percent of GDP per capita) is about 2.5 times lower than the OECD average. It is difficult to expect high results from the educational system regarding its capability to develop students’ hard skills, while it is left heavily underfunded. Moreover, as it was observed previously, Kazakhstani school students lag behind their OECD counterparts by the equivalent of 1.5-2 years of education (CABAR, n.d.). At the same time, the government expenditure per secondary education student is much closer to the OECD average, meaning that Kazakhstan spends less money on education and does so less effectively (The World Bank, 2020).
There are challenges in the development of soft skills within Kazakhstan’s educational system as well. While these challenges are hardly quantifiable, they are more serious and threatening than the ones in the hard skills development field. According to Amantay and Ermakov (2021), even awareness of the concept of soft skills is lacking within Kazakhstan’s education system – around half of the students and teachers that were surveyed in the authors’ study were unfamiliar with the concept and methods of soft skills development. This clearly demonstrates the gap that is there between hard and soft skills in Kazakhstan’s higher education institutions. While hard skills enjoy some level of recognition and development due to their historic dominance within the academic field, soft skills are still to gain momentum and rightful acknowledgment by the local academia. This status quo results from the fact that many Kazakhstani universities focus primarily on academic instruction, with less attention paid to the development of soft skills. While some universities offer extracurricular activities and clubs that provide opportunities for students to develop leadership and teamwork skills, these opportunities are often limited and not widely available. In addition, there is a lack of emphasis on the development of soft skills in the curriculum itself. While some courses may include opportunities for students to develop communication and problem-solving skills, many do not. This can leave students ill-prepared for the demands of the workforce, where soft skills are often just as important as technical expertise.
In conclusion, the development of hard and soft skills is critical for the success of individuals in the modern job market. Higher education institutions play a significant role in developing these skills by providing students with the knowledge and expertise required to succeed in their chosen fields. However, this might not be the case for Kazakhstan’s higher education system. Currently, the local tertiary education system suffers from underfunding, which may produce subpar results in terms of hard skills development, as it is happening in the secondary education system. At the same time, it can be observed that the vital shift in the recognition of soft skills as an essential part of the academic curriculum has not been finished yet. The challenges are complex and broad, requiring an adequately complex response from a multitude of actors. The government of Kazakhstan needs to continue investing in higher education and promoting the development of both hard and soft skills. Also, there must be a greater emphasis on the development of soft skills in the curriculum itself, with courses that provide opportunities for students to develop communication, problem-solving, and leadership skills. Universities need to improve the quality of education provided to students and ensure that they have access to practical training opportunities. Employers and universities need to work together to bridge the skills gap and ensure that graduates are equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the job market. By addressing these challenges, Kazakhstan can continue to develop a skilled workforce that can compete in the global economy.
Amantay, Z. & Ermakov, D. (2021). Socio-pedagogical Features of the Formation of Soft Skills in the Republic of Kazakhstan. 1st International Conference on Education: Current Issues and Digital Technologies (ICECIDT 2021). DOI:10.2991/assehr.k.210527.006. Accessed on 06.03.2023.
CABAR (2020). Why Did Kazakhstan Fail The International PISA Assessment? Retrieved from file:///C:/Users/gulna/Downloads/Why%20Did%20Kazakhstan%20Fail%20The%20International%20PISA%20Assessment_.pdf. Accessed on 08.03.2023.
Cambridge Dictionary (n.d.). Soft skills. Retrieved from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/soft-skills. Accessed on 06.03.2023.
Galushko, M. (2023). Expert: The main problem of the Kazakhstani labor market is the lack of specialists. Retrieved from https://inbusiness.kz/ru/news/ekspert-problema-nashego-rynka-truda-nehvatka-specialistov-vysokoj-kvalifikacii. Accessed on 07.03.2023.
Investopedia (2022). Hard Skills: Definition, Examples, and Comparison to Soft Skills. Retrieved from https://www.investopedia.com/terms/h/hard-skills.asp. Accessed on 06.03.2023.
Kehm, B. M. (2013). Global University Rankings – Impacts and Unintended Side Effects. European Journal of Education, 49(1), 102–112. doi:10.1111/ejed.12064. Accessed on 08.03.2023.
OECD (2015). Skills for Social Progress: The Power of Social and Emotional Skills, OECD Skills Studies, OECD Publishing, Paris. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264226159-en. Accessed on 06.03.2023.
OECD (n.d.). About PISA. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/pisa/aboutpisa.htm. Accessed on 08.03.2023.
The World Bank (2020). Government expenditure per student, tertiary (% of GDP per capita) – Kazakhstan, OECD members. Retrieved from https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.XPD.TERT.PC.ZS?locations=KZ-OE. Accessed on 07.03.2023.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy
Nadirova Gulnar Ermuratovna graduated from the Oriental Faculty of Leningrad State University, in 1990 she defended her thesis on the Algerian literature at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, in 2006 doctoral thesis - on modern Tunisian literature at the Tashkent Institute of Oriental Studies, Professor.