Which are more important – soft skills or hard skills? This conversation has been going on for quite some time now. And it seems that, although there are some career paths that rely more on one of the two skills set, soft skills are in general considered necessary in the workplace – even for those professions that do not basically depend on them.
Defining the Soft Skills
But what are soft skills? There have been many definitions and many efforts to define them. Lei Han, a top career expert, has created a list with 28 (!) soft skills, categorizing them in two subsets: those that relate to our interaction with other people (people skills) and those that relate to our interaction with ourselves, our “inner dialogue” as she perfectly puts it (self-management skills). In Saddleback College’s book “Soft Skill in the Workplace”, soft skills are categorized in the following subsets: work ethic, positive attitude, communication skills, time management abilities, problem solving skills, teamwork skills, self-confidence, flexibility/adaptability, ability to accept/ learn from criticism, and ability to work well under pressure.
So, in general, soft skills are related to a person’s emotional intelligence and emotional quotient (EQ). On the other hand, hard skills are directly related to a person’s Intelligence Quotient (IQ). Examples of hard skills include science and the capabilities related to the logical center of the human brain, such as math, physics, statistics, logic, biology, programming, etc. And while hard skills are taught in school, soft skills are not; many career experts and human resource executives proclaim that soft skills are acquired through work and life experience.
The importance of Soft Skills
Each company is looking for a different combination of hard and soft skills, according to its culture, but also depending on specific organizational roles. For instance, a physicist or a mathematician may possess a few soft skills and be very successful in their job, compared to a salesperson, whose job definitely requires the majority of soft skills in order to be successful. However, even a physics researcher, who works in a physics lab on his own for months or for years, would have to possess various soft skills related to his own self: self-confidence, good time management skills, patience, perceptiveness, and persistence. Furthermore, he would have to cooperate with others to some degree and, at some point, to present his research findings to other people and to persuade them that they are significant. Thus, he would need communication skills, presentation skills, selling skills (necessary for “selling” his idea or his findings) and self-promotion skills.
This is the argument behind Lei Han’s statement, included in her article “Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills – Difference and Importance”, that soft skills are more important in most business careers than hard skills. As she explains, many successful senior people don’t seem to be that smart in terms of IQ (which implies that they may possess limited hard skills). However, they are very successful in senior positions, due to the fact that they have exceptional soft skills. This reasoning is indeed very interesting and I would take it a step further. In case hard skills were more important than soft skills in the organizational world, and since hard skills rely on a person’s IQ, then companies could not survive, let alone be successful because people with exceptional IQs are a very low proportion of the overall population. Obviously, this is not the case; and innovative entrepreneurs, senior business executives and distinguished leaders definitely possess some hard skills; but it is their soft skills that make them stand out from the crowd.
This is why Pamella Skillings, in her article ‘How to answer: Why should we hire you? suggests that candidates should be prepared to answer this question by including “a unique combination of skills” and experience. She mentions an example of a person with strong programming skills that combines leadership skills and experience and explains that “this sounds like a great recipe for a senior programmer”. This person would be far more attractive to the eyes of an HR executive/decision maker concerning a job vacancy than someone who just possesses strong – or even stronger- programming skills.
Walrath Recruiting Inc, a major recruiting company in New York, has devoted one of the articles to its website to the importance of soft skills. The article is titled Mind the “Gap” – Employee Soft Skills and it refers to the soft skills gap in the workplace. What is impressive is that Walrath executives seem to have identified “a large skills gap within the non-technical skills most often referred to as “Soft Skills”, which also happen to be some of the most desired skills in employees of all fields of work”. The article mentions that the Walrath recruiters are seeing evidence that the skills gap is much more than just a lack of quality workers highly skilled in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields. The article underlines the role of soft skills in the workplace since they directly affect how employees perform and how they communicate and interact with others.
In the same article, authors mention the findings of the Emerging Workforce Study, which suggest exactly the same thing: that soft skills are essential in the workplace. This study examines key issues and trends impacting the American workplace. The EWS identified the most important skills to achieving success at work according to the employers perspective: problem-solving skills, strategic thinking skills, team-building skills, ability to understand and interpret data, and evolving technology expertise (latest mobile applications, cloud computing, security, etc.), and according to the employees perspective: problem-solving skills, strategic thinking skills, evolving technology expertise (latest mobile applications, cloud computing, security, etc.), ability to understand and interpret data, multidisciplinary knowledge and understanding, and the nature and impact of the skills gap.
As it is obvious, both employees and employers believe that the key skills for success at work are soft skills. Another very interesting finding of the EWS 2015 is that 1 out of 3 workers believes that his current job skills fall short of what would be required in future positions. This clearly indicates a gap in education, since soft skills are not at all taught during the school years. Is it that things have changed in the workplace so rapidly, that colleges and universities have not managed to keep up with the change? Maybe. Or is it that soft skills cannot be taught in classrooms, but only through work and life experience?
Why Are the Soft Skills Necessary for Employees?
Whatever the case, candidates and contemporary business executives need to find a way to enhance their soft skills, as it is also indicated in the NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers) 2016 report. This research requested employers to grade attributes of candidates, on a scale from 1 to 5, according to their influence on a hiring decision. The results reveal that of course a college degree and a good GPA are required; however, they are not enough. Leadership skills, teamwork, extracurricular activities and volunteer work are defining factors of whether or not to hire a specific candidate. And they are all connected to soft skills. This is due to the fact that recruiters are nowadays trying to find evidence that a candidate is not only right for the job in terms of educations and hard skills, but also in terms of fitting the corporate culture and being pleasant to work with.
And apart from making it easier to get hired, soft skills also make it easier to “stay” in a job position for a longer time. This makes perfect sense; people who are self-confident, who can communicate better, cooperate better, solve problems easier, handle their time more effectively, and find innovative solutions to problems, are far less likely to create problems in an organization. Behavior is the main cause that gets people fired. Someone who possesses soft skills, would, in general, behave in a way which is more acceptable and appropriate in a business, as well as a social, environment.
To sum up, employers hire with soft skills in mind; and also fire with soft skills in mind. Contemporary and future executives cannot do without soft skills. Now the question is: how will the educational institutes and the corporate world enable candidates to enhance their soft skills? Apparently, this is a very interesting and strategic issue of the business world for the years to come.