Asee peer logo

A Provisional History of the Idea of "Soft" vs. "Hard" Skills in Engineering Education

Download Paper |


2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

'Diversity' and Inclusion? Pedagogy, Experiences, Language and Performative Action

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Page Count




Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Kathryn A. Neeley University of Virginia

visit author page

Kathryn Neeley is Associate Professor of Science, Technology, and Society in the Engineering and Society Department of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia. She has served twice as chair of the Liberal Education/Engineering and Society Division of ASEE and received that division's Sterling Olmsted Award for outstanding contributions to liberal education for engineers.

visit author page

Download Paper |


This paper reports on the first phase of a work-in-progress: a historical and philosophical inquiry into why the terminology of soft versus hard skills emerged, how it has evolved in engineering education, why it has been so persistent, why it is problematic, and how we might begin to move beyond it in engineering education.

Here, the focus is on the circumstances that led to the emergence and prevalence of the term in two different contexts: (1) the discourse community of speakers of English as represented in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and (2) the discourse community of engineering education as reflected in papers published by the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) in the period 1996-2020.

The combination of these two perspectives reveals that (1) the hard-soft skills distinction emerged in the context of leadership development in the military, (2) the terminology was viewed as problematic from the beginning, (3) the discourse on soft skills is by no means limited to engineering education; (4) interest in the topic has increased dramatically in ASEE since 1996; and (5) implementation of the EC2000 accreditation criteria provided the impetus for that increase.

Neeley, K. A. (2021, July), A Provisional History of the Idea of "Soft" vs. "Hard" Skills in Engineering Education Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--36604

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2021 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015