Imagine that you’re a hiring manager looking for someone to fill a computer programming position. You have two final candidates. One has a strong resume including evidence of superior programming skills, but he seems impatient during the interview and has trouble listening to you and expressing his ideas. The other is also a strong programmer, though not quite as strong as the first—but he is polite and respectful in his interview, is articulate in responding to questions and, based on his answers, appears to be a team player. Whom do you hire?
Hard skills are skills that can be taught—like how to fix a refrigerator, teach math, or speak a foreign language. In other words, hard skills are technical skills. Almost every job requires job candidates to possess hard skills, and that they have the requisite education to demonstrate those competencies.
Soft skills—on the other hand—cannot be taught. Although you can refine your soft skills and become more adept at leveraging them, these skills are intuitive by nature and built through experience. Soft skills are less tangible than hard skills, and for this reason usually more difficult to demonstrate through educational certifications. In other words, whereas hard skills are learned, soft skills are acquired—typically through relevant life experiences.
The relative importance of hard skills vs. soft skills is usually a function of the nature of a given job. Sometimes it’s also tied to the culture associated with the company. For example, an airline pilot might have strong soft skills (like professionalism or adaptability), but you wouldn’t want him on the job if he didn’t know how to fly a plane. In the same way, a math teacher might have strong hard skills, like expertise in algebra or trigonometry, but how effective would his teaching be without soft skills like patience and the ability to convey information?
The truth is that both hard skills and soft skills are important for almost any job—but employers are increasingly stressing the importance of soft skills in the workplace. They are doing so because they understand that they can teach an employee how to do something he doesn’t currently know how to do more easily than they can make him more effective with time management, active listening or verbal communications. As Alison Doyle (whose website was recognized by Forbes as one of the top 100 career websites) writes for The Balance:
“While certain hard skills are necessary for any position, employers increasingly look for job applicants with particular soft skills. This is because, while it is easy for an employer to train a new employee in a particular hard skill (such as how to use a certain computer program), it is much more difficult to train an employee in a soft skill (such as patience).”
Every job is different, as is every employer. Depending on the nature of the position, employers will focus on some soft skills more than others. For example, schools and colleges will put greater emphasis on verbal communications skills, while counseling agencies might focus more on active listening skills. That said, there is a group of soft skills which are essential for almost any job, including the following 7:
Interpersonal skills enable workers to be team players and collaborative in their approach to problem-solving. Individuals with strong interpersonal skills understand that listening (without judgment) is as important as speaking. They also know that it’s reasonable to accept guidance and advice from others to find solutions to common problems. With strong interpersonal skills, employees are equally successful working with their boss as with those who report to them.
Having strong verbal communication skills doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a robust vocabulary or never utter a sentence which ends in a preposition (those are hard skills). People with strong verbal communications skills understand their audience and know how to tailor their language in a way that effectively gets their ideas across. Having strong verbal communications skills means that you can convey ideas and information quickly and effectively.
Most colleges now require coursework that is intended to sharpen students’ critical thinking skills. The ability to think critically means you can objectively weigh all the information available to you, assess which information is most accurate, and use that information to solve problems. People with strong critical thinking skills are less subject to bias and, for this reason, better at hitting upon smart solutions to problems.
To some degree, active listening overlaps with interpersonal skills, but there are key differences. Active listening means putting a laser-like focus on what someone else is saying and doing so without thinking about what you’re going to say next. For people with strong active listening skills, the goal isn’t to score points in a debate—it’s to understand what the other person is saying, fairly and without the investment of ego.
Solving any problem requires a plan, a way of getting from point A to point B as effectively and quickly as possible. That requires the ability to organize one’s thoughts into a step-wise process in which each step follows naturally from the one which precedes it. The best problem solvers always have strong organizational and planning skills.
Most workers will tell you there aren’t enough hours in the day to complete all the tasks assigned to them. Those who are the most successful know how to manage their time in ways which enable them to get the most work done in the least amount of time. That means, among other things, knowing how to prioritize tasks. For example, workers with strong time management skills usually deal with their most important tasks first.
If there’s one constant in business today, that constant is change. Enterprises are increasingly competing in a global environment and a digital landscape. The best workers are open to change and relish the chance to learn new ways to solve intractable problems. They are, in other words, adaptable and flexible enough to meet the inevitable changes that confront them and their companies.
None of this is to say that hard skills are less important than they used to be. The key takeaway, rather, is that soft skills enable workers to more effectively leverage the hard skills they possess. Employees who can collaborate with their colleagues, work as members of teams and interact effectively with people above and below them in an organizational hierarchy are the ones who are most likely to be successful and to help their companies achieve key business objectives.
Contact our programs team to learn how involvement in FIRST programs prepares students for workforce readiness with the highly sought-after combination of both soft and STEM skills.