Employees are nervous about their futures and with good reason. Technology evolves so quickly, research shows almost one-third of professionals fear their skills will be redundant in the next year or 2. Another 38 percent think it will be 4 to 5 years before their skills are out-of-date, but still—that’s not far off.

In response, some employees proactively seek out new skill sets and certifications to ensure they stay relevant in their fields. That’s all well and good, but there is one category of skills they might be ignoring, and that could be the most important one of all: soft skills, like communication, teamwork and problem-solving. 

These soft skills are skills employees must have regardless of technology, yet employers are not finding enough candidates who possess these skills—because fewer employees and college graduates have them. One study found four out of 10 corporations say recent college graduates lack the soft skills needed to be successful in the workforce. In fact, companies hiring more liberal arts majors because they have the soft skills many STEM graduates are missing. Somehow, soft skills have become elusive among those who are trained to work in technical fields—but necessary.

Soft skills are in decline

The decline in soft skills is significant. One in three recruiters thinks the soft skills of job candidates have declined in just the last five years. And 97 percent agree parents and colleges need to do a better job of teaching soft skills to students.

But why this decline? What has caused it? There isn’t an easy answer. Job candidates are lacking in soft skills for several reasons. The divide between STEM and humanities degrees has played a role. Students on STEM learning tracks no longer get a well-rounded education because coursework is so focused on so-called hard skills and the soft skills are neglected. And as fewer students pursue humanities or liberal arts degrees, fewer graduates can offer employers the soft skills employers need. 

The recent drop in social capital—defined as the networks of relationships among people who live or work in a society—has also been blamed for the decline in soft skills. Another contributing factor is social media which has caused people to spend less time interacting in person, preferring instead to text or message. Without those real-life interactions, how can people learn?

The lack of soft skills in the workplace is such an important issue these days that you can find entire dissertations on the topic, like this one and this one

Soft skills are power skills—and that’s why employers want them

If the word “soft” makes these skills sound inconsequential, consider this: The President of Dartmouth College suggests we call them power skills instead, they are that important. As a Forbes article explains, “...the term 'soft skills' is a misnomer. Critical thinking, persuasive writing, communications, and teamwork are not fluffy, nice-to-have value-adds. They’re hard-won and rigorously maintained abilities that are better referred to as 'power skills.'” 

These power skills are needed across the board. LinkedIn reported that the importance of soft skills was consistent across the 20 top emerging jobs of 2017, even though those jobs included Machine Learning engineer, data scientist, Big Data developer and other specialized technical roles. 

The soft skills employers seek—and why they seek them

So what are these elusive skills employers long for and employees lack? Google a list of soft skills, and you’ll get lists of varying lengths and types, but in general the soft skills employers want in a job candidate include: 

  • Communication, written and verbal
  • Teamwork
  • Problem-solving
  • Creativity
  • Critical thinking 
  • Adaptability
  • Interpersonal skills

For people working in IT—people who have worked hard to master specialized technical skills like a programming language or data analytics—this list might seem odd. Why do you need interpersonal skills to develop an app? Why do you need to be creative when you’re working with data? Keep in mind that these are not new skills employers are looking for. Instead, these are skills that employers used to be able to safely assume job candidates would have. These are skills that were learned in school, college and life. The issue isn’t that now we have new things to learn. It’s that we’re not learning them like we used to. 

And that’s why employers want—need—these skills: Because they’ve always been necessary for a productive, smoothly functioning workforce. And they remain so, even as emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence take center stage.  

No matter the job, employees need to be able to communicate with coworkers, managers and sometimes stakeholders too. They need to be able to collaborate and work together to find solutions to problems and to take leadership roles when necessary. Employees must be adaptable in our fast-changing world, as well as open to criticism when necessary. Companies need employees who are critical thinkers because it’s that outside-the-box thinking that’s going to lead to innovations and increased competitiveness. And honestly, shouldn’t we reasonably expect everyone to simply be a nice person we can easily get along with? 

Ways to improve your soft skills

If your focus has been on upskilling and learning new technologies to stay relevant and employable, keep it up! That’s taking a proactive approach to your career, and in truth, you’re the only one looking out for you. But consider improving your soft skills too, to improve your performance in your current job and increase your appeal when you go after the next one. Doing so won’t require going to school or paying tuition. It only requires that you set out to improve—and that you stay committed to making that improvement. 

You can find plenty of good tips for improving soft skills online. For example, a good starting point is this advice offered by Strayer University on 9 ways to enhance your soft skills. The Job Network offers 10 steps to improve communication skills at work. And GoSkills offers practical, step-by-step advice for improving soft skills. If you prefer to take a class because it will keep you focused on improving, they also offer a variety of classes on short skills for an affordable price, including classes on writing, public speaking, body language, and leadership. 

In this day and age, future-proofing your career by staying current in your skills is critical. But pay as much attention to your soft skills as you do your hard skills if you really want to be the job candidate that stands out. 

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