Essential Skills: Soft Skills for a Changing World

Essential Skills: Soft Skills for a Changing World


IREX’s Essential Skills methodology is a comprehensive approach to training young people for the opportunities and challenges of today and the future by strengthening crucial soft skills. These skills are so important that we call them essential skills.

Unlike traditional approaches to developing soft skills, the Essential Skills approach was designed for young people who are facing a rapidly changing world. The approach equips youth to be agile, resilient, and self-reliant learners who can effectively engage diverse people around the world and navigate change and uncertainty.

We tailor the Essential Skills approach to diverse contexts through three main offerings: Youth Essential Skills, Employee Essential Skills, and Skills for Virtual Gigs.

Youth Essential Skills

Development donors and implementers: Strengthen youths' skills in education, work, and leadership to improve development outcomes.

Explore Youth Essential Skills

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Employee Essential Skills

Employers: Future-proof your teams and employees for success in a rapidly changing and increasingly digitized work environment.

Go to Employee Essential Skills

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Skills for Virtual Gigs

Job seekers: Gain skills for online work opportunities.

Learn about Skills for Virtual Gigs

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We’ve used the Essential Skills approach to train youth in 18 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East & North Africa, and the United States.

  • In Kenya, participants at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology improved their skills by more than 30%.
  • In Nigeria, 100% of employees who received training showed statistically significant improvements in all skill areas that the training modules covered.
  • In Tunisia, we trained young leaders and community organizers, who then strengthened the skills of nearly 300 other youth in only 3 months.

The Essential Skills Advantage

  • Practical and learner-driven: The activities throughout the curriculum are experiential to facilitate learning by doing.
  • Modular and customizable: The modular approach is designed to be highly customizable to support success in a variety of contexts, including in work, school, and leadership development.
  • Power learners: The approach teaches participants to become self-reliant power learners—people who use reflection and a growth mindset to quickly adapt, learn, and take initiative to stay on track and personalize their own learning journey.
  • Gender and social inclusion: The approach instills values and provides opportunities that promote safety and meaningful inclusion, particularly for marginalized people. 
  • In-person and online options: The training can be delivered online, in person, or through a blended approach.

The Skills

The research-backed skills in the Essential Skills approach have been proven to contribute to workforce and entrepreneurial success, civic participation, resilience, and youth leadership.

  • Higher-order thinking: The ability to see an issue, take in information about it, consider the options available, and organize those options by order of priority to reach a reasonable conclusion. It includes problem solving, critical thinking, and reasoning.
  • Collaboration: The ability to work effectively and respectfully with diverse individuals. It includes coordination, collaborative decision-making, conflict resolution, negotiation, and communication within teams.
  • Positive self-concept: The ability for a person to demonstrate an understanding of their own strengths and potential. It includes self-awareness, self-confidence, self-efficacy, self-esteem, self-worth, and a sense of well-being and being valued.
  • Adaptability: The ability to recognize, understand, learn from, and adjust to changes in people, places, and circumstances. It includes the ability to embrace and make the best of the unknown.
  • Interdisciplinarity: The ability to draw connections between different types of experiences and information. It includes applying knowledge from one area of life to another.
  • Resilience: The ability to continue working toward goals and tasks despite difficulties. It includes developing connections with others, seeking support when dealing with challenges, and asking for help.
  • Entrepreneurial thinking: The ability to see and experience problems as opportunities to create value for oneself and others. It includes understanding the needs and interests of people who are affected by a problem or an opportunity. It requires obtaining available resources, thinking creatively about solutions to a problem, and embracing risk and things that are unknown. 
  • Communication: The ability to effectively express oneself. It includes active listening, knowing how to reach your audience, storytelling, making a case, and communicating in a professional way.
  • Empathy: The ability to feel and understand what someone else is feeling. It involves putting yourself in another person’s shoes to understand their perspective. It includes naming emotions and understanding a person’s environment.
  • Inclusiveness: The ability to consider or involve diverse people and treat them in a fair and equal way. It includes considering who is present, who is missing, and who something is intended for.
  • Learning to learn: The practice of learning how to learn on your own by using a curious, humble, and growth-focused mindset. The habit of using an ongoing reflective-practice process. This requires self-motivation and embracing discomfort, struggle, risk, and failure. It includes setting and tracking goals, finding support, and using feedback.