There is clearly great interest in the subject of “soft skills”. The term is searched over 100,000 times a year and Google yields 295,000,000 results. “Soft skills” refers to professional skills that are non-vocation specific and intangible in nature such as communication, creativity, problem-solving, empathy, collaboration, adaptability/flexibility, and coaching. They are also critical, generalizable skills that should be learned, practiced, mastered and utilized across all levels of your organization to build interpersonal relations, create effective outcomes and achieve targeted results. So, aren’t these important, highly sought-after skills truly essential skills?
Transforming the workplace of the 2020s
In a global survey conducted by LinkedIn of 5,000 HR professionals and hiring managers, behavioral data analysis uncovered four increasing trends that will actively transform the workplace as we approach the 2020s.
“Soft Skills” are obviously top of mind for talent professionals with 91% of respondents identifying them as being important to activities in the workplace specific to resourcing, developing and managing people. The importance of “soft skills” is further reinforced in the World Economic Forum’s Future of Work Report 2018, which states that “non-cognitive soft skills (that enable) people to leverage their uniquely human capabilities”, now more than ever have become essential for recruiting, hiring, professional development and overall job success across all industries.
The Skill Gap
“Soft skills” are in high demand and yet are difficult to find in employees and recruits. The challenge is that while there is agreement on the importance of soft skills, there appears to be a gap between the skills organizations need in their employees and those skills with which they are equipped. In 2019, the number one challenge as expressed by professional business managers in hiring, developing, and keeping entry level employees, is a lack of effective communication/interpersonal skills. If these skills are so important, essential even, why is it that so many employees simply don’t have them?
While this gap is not specific to any industry, it is experienced more acutely in professions such as IT and accounting; professions that pride themselves on their ‘hard skills’. In today’s workplace, technology professionals at all levels are expected to be well-equipped with core “soft skills”. In fact, The Tech Talent Employer Collaborative, under the auspices of The Northern Virginia Technology Council, has acknowledged that IT, programmer, and developer positions are no longer back room, closed door roles. These technology professionals are expected to contribute to cross-functional working groups using skills of effective communication, emotional intelligence, problem solving, project management, and relationship management.
The “soft skills” gap becomes apparent when IT professionals are hired for their technical knowledge, skills and abilities and then very soon after are labeled as “poor hires”, sometimes being fired within months of being hired. This gap in skills also poses a problem in recruiting. “Soft skills” deficiencies have been cited by technology employers as their primary pain point. In a series of 2018 reports published by the Greater Washington Region, Technology Workforce Needs Assessment and Understanding Employer Demand for Cybersecurity and Software Development Skills, key findings concluded that employers in the field of information technology (IT), cybersecurity, and software development struggle to find candidates that have both technical expertise and “soft skill” competencies that they so desperately need in their workforce.
Even with Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality (VR), automation and data analysis being lauded as the keys to success in the future of work, some employers stated they would rather hire a candidate that does not meet all the technical competency requirements of the job if the candidate has strong “soft skill” competencies. They would hire for “soft skills” and then upskill and coach on the required technical competencies.
Other ‘technical’ based professionals are in a similar situation. In an article published in Pivot Magazine (CPA Canada), author Adrienne Tanner asks: “Can accountants learn ‘emotional intelligence’?” In her article she refers to CPA competencies such as “innovation, resiliency and agility…all of which are underpinned by emotional intelligence.” The existence of the skills gap is supported by a 2018 Business Council of Canada survey of 95 private-sector employers that pointed to business school graduates typically being hired on the basis of strong technical abilities, and then very often being found to lack the “human skills” needed to establish client and workplace relationships.
Bridging the Gap
The need to develop these essential skills in the workplace presents a great opportunity for Human Resources and Talent Development professionals to strategically intervene, make significant and impactful people development contributions, and bring great value to the business. Often, employees and their leaders have not been taught these skills through formal study at an institution of higher learning and therefore they may seem elusive and more difficult to develop. Many students of the technological sciences focus almost exclusively on their high IQs and technical abilities to the detriment of pursuing more broad-based learning experiences involving how to connect and collaborate well with others.
The Final Word on “Soft Skills”
The term “soft skills” is clearly a misnomer given there is nothing soft about not being hired for a job, or being consistently passed over for promotions, or being fired from a job due to a lack of emotional maturity, an inability to listen and communicate effectively and a lack of social skills that impact your ability to collaborate and contribute to team projects. Let’s agree to stop calling these core, foundational, essential skills “soft skills”.
Employers are seeking team members who can communicate with empathy, innovate and collaborate in teams, and demonstrate the skills of resilience and emotional intelligence in order to skill up and gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace. These skills are no longer “nice to have”, they have become essential for organizations to adapt, transform, survive and thrive in the future of work. Organizations need to prioritize training for critical, human, interpersonal skills; empowering people with them, and hiring, promoting and firing based on these skills in order for technically specific skills to be accessed and leveraged for companies to achieve the pinnacle of business results.
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About the author
As a lifelong student of human behavior, a psychotherapist / family therapist turned organizational psychologist, Dr. Warren believes that a strong foundation of Emotional Intelligence (EI) builds great leaders, fosters employee engagement and creates great places to work. She has a wealth of knowledge and professional experience in the areas of collaboration, values-based leadership, coaching, and strategic business execution. Dr. Warren holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology and a Professional Post-Graduate Certificate in Leadership. She currently holds the position of Vice President of Leadership Development at the Institute for Health and Human Potential. Connect with me on LinkedIn!