Hard skills. Soft skills. Skills gap. There’s a lot of talk about skills nowadays. This is especially in the online sphere. 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. The debate has perpetuated the myth of the skills gap.

However, I will admit that as the world changes around us, so too do the world’s requirements of its citizens. We are becoming more globally connected and dependent on automation at a rate faster than any civilization in history, And so we map uncharted ground. What we’re finding is there isn’t necessarily a lack of any type of skills in the workplace. However, certain skill sets are becoming more ubiquitous and favourable. Enter the world of soft skills.

Global Connection

According to TechTarget, soft skills is basically a synonym for “people skills”:

Unlike hard skills, which describe a person’s technical skillset and ability to perform specific tasks, soft skills are broadly applicable across job titles and industries. It’s said that hard skills will get you an interview. However, it is soft skills to get that get you the job.  Good manners, optimism, common sense, a sense of humour, empathy and the ability to collaborate and negotiate are all-important soft skills. Another soft skill is situational awareness. That ability to read a situation as it unfolds to decide upon a response that yields the best result for all involved is key. Another important soft skill is adaptability.

The reason that soft skills are becoming so highly treasured is that the positions that didn’t use 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.

Online communication

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 the fact that 70% of customers prefer content over ads, and that 67% of B2B buyers rely more on online content to make B2B purchases.

Recognising the impact of automation

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.”

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% think schools should be doing a better job of preparing students for the workforce
  • 60% think too little emphasis is placed on collaborations with other learners in the classroom
  • 46% and 40%, respectively, believe there should be more emphasis on group achievement and working in teams
  • 96% and 95% 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. In particular skills like communication when dealing with group dynamics in the workplace. Also,  research from Duke University found that teaching non-cognitive soft skills not only increased performance but also helped to decrease juvenile delinquency and crime.

How to apply the need for soft skills?

If you’re looking for employment, brush up on your soft skills. This means

  • Pay attention to your communication skills.
  • Making eye contact.
  • Monitor your body language.
  • Practise your listening skills.
  • 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. 

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. Finally 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.

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Andrew is a writer and former tech start up manager from Boise, ID. He owns an entertainment company he started after channeling inspiration from Simon Sinek.