Hard skills. Soft skills. Skills gap. There’s a lot of talk about skills nowadays, especially in the online sphere–and don’t get me wrong, I’ve contributed to that talk. That’s because I’m seriously sick of hearing about Millennials and their lack of hard or soft \skills (take your pick–and do a search, you’ll find plenty of people decrying them for both) and (especially) this perpetuated myth of the skills gap.
However, I will admit that as the world changes around us, so too do that world’s requirements of its citizens. As we become more globally connected and dependent on automation at a rate faster than any civilization in history, we map uncharted ground. What we’re finding is that, while there isn’t necessarily a lack of any type of skills in the workplace, certain skill sets are becoming more ubiquitous and favorable. Enter the world of soft skills.
Global Connection, Automation, and the Liberal Arts
According to TechTarget, soft skills is basically a synonym for “people skills”:
“Unlike hard skills, which describe a person’s technical skill set and ability to perform specific tasks, soft skills are broadly applicable across job titles and industries. It’s often said that hard skills will get you an interview but you need soft skills to get — and keep — the job… Good manners, optimism, common sense, a sense of humor, empathy and the ability to collaborate and negotiate are all-important soft skills. Other soft skills include situational awareness and the ability to read a situation as it unfolds to decide upon a response that yields the best result for all involved. Another important soft skill is adaptability.”
The reason that soft skills are becoming so highly treasured is that the positions that didn’t used to require them are changing. Globalization means that everybody is connected now, and that nobody is silo’d. Backroom coders, for example need to learn to co-operate with a team to make sure that the final product is what people want and need. Those who work remotely need to learn how to appropriately communicate with bosses and coworkers through online channels. Even B2B business owners, who traditionally haven’t had to worry about social media, are now dealing with that fact that 70% of customers prefer content over ads, and that 67% of B2B buyers rely more on online content to make B2B purchases.
On top of that, automation is reaching astounding new heights. In the face of a trend toward STEM specialization in schools, specialized positions are going by the wayside because robots do a lot of things better than people. In an article with Fast Company about Liberal Arts and Tech CEOs, Georgia Nugent, former president of Kenyon College said this: “It’s a horrible irony that at the very moment the world has become more complex, we’re encouraging our young people to be highly specialized in one task,” she says. “We are doing a disservice to young people by telling them that life is a straight path. The liberal arts are still relevant because they prepare students to be flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances.”
We Need to Focus On Soft Skills in School
WSJ recently ran a story titled “Soft Skills Give Workers a Big Edge. It’s Time to Start Focusing on Them in School, Report Says,” in which they argue that students with strong soft skills have higher earnings and are more likely to graduate post-secondary education and work a full-time job. Blackhawk Technical College is taking advantage of and playing to that need by teaching employability basics such as showing up on time and not using your cellphone during class.
More emphasis like that at Blackhawk is sorely needed. TheJournal.com points to a study from Wainhouse Research that surveyed education stakeholders and found that:
- 39 percent think schools should be doing a better job of preparing students for the workforce
- 60 percent think too little emphasis is placed on collaborations with other learners in the classroom
- 46 percent and 40 percent, respectively, believe there should be more emphasis on group achievement and working in teams
- 96 percent and 95 percent, respectively, believe that the two most important soft skills are problem solving and the ability to collaborate
Maryville University’s Online MBA program stresses the importance of soft skills like communication when dealing with group dynamics in the workplace as well, and to top it off, recent research from Duke university find finds that teaching non-cognitive soft skills not only increases performance, but also helps to decrease juvenile delinquency and crime.
So… How Do You Apply This?
If you’re looking for employment, brush up on your soft skills. This means paying attention to your communication skills, making eye contact, monitoring your body language, practicing your listening skills, and learning how to healthily manage conflict. Remember that your hard skill knowledge might be awesome, but that if you can’t effectively communicate why you’re the right person for the job… well, then, you probably aren’t that person.
If you’re looking to hire, focus less on questions that reveal the applicant’s hard skills, and more on ones that reveal how effectively they communicate and who they are. In this article, “10 Revealing Questions to Ask When Interviewing Job Candidates,” you’ll notice that most of them are not industry specific–that’s because the value of an employee is measured much more in their ability to be adaptable, communicate, and work within a team, than it ever usually is about their specific knowledge or skillsets. Oftentimes, those skillsets are prerequisites that most prospective employees will have mastered to a degree anyway, and those who haven’t mastered them but who have the right soft skills will be mastering them in no time (with the right guidance, of course).
Lastly, if you’re a manager looking to bolster soft skills among employees you already have, Daniel White writing for Fast Company says this:
“…when you look around your own office, it is usually fairly easy to find those employees lacking soft skills. They are the ones unwilling to accept any kind of change, the ones unable to properly manage subordinates, and the ones constantly upset about one thing or another (whether in their professional or personal life). What should a manager do with employees lacking these skills? Fire them? Just put up with them? Why not help them develop the skills?”
He then goes on to outline 6 steps to help improve those soft skills, which include education and evaluation.
When it’s all said and done, the point is that it’s pretty apparent that soft skills are becoming extremely important in the workplace. Whether you’re a manager, an employee, or a prospective hire, the world is changing in a way that demands you be cognizant of these skills–or risk being left behind.