The Hard Thing About Soft Skills: Addressing the Soft Skills Gap in 2021

When it comes to job searching, it’s important to consider your qualifications. What technical, job-specific skills have you developed that would make you the perfect candidate for this position? What unique experiences can you bring to the table? While employers will carefully examine these factors, there are other considerations that you may not have thought about. For one, soft skills.


Soft skills are skills outside your technical abilities that relate to how you function in the workplace. Time management, interpersonal communication, conflict resolution, listening, problem-solving, and overall emotional intelligence all fall into this category. When you’re interviewing for a position, the employer is likely looking for signs of strong soft skills as much as they are asking questions about your resume. When it comes to being a reliable, functional worker, regardless of your field, the ways that you interact with your coworkers handle tough situations are just as important as your technical qualifications. 


What are soft skills?

Unlike technical skills, soft skills include personal characteristics. They characterize the ways in which you interact with other people and how you go about certain tasks, and therefore provide insight into your personality and communication style (Tripathy, 2020). In other words, soft skills are transferable skills that apply to various situations, even outside of the workplace. While you may develop certain soft skills while working at a particular job, they are more indicative of your character and personality than of your work experience. 


For instance, soft skills include:


Do we learn soft skills in school?

When it comes to education settings, the skills that we’re taught are often specific to our area(s) of study. In high school, for instance, the curriculum is pretty much the same across the board: math, science, English, social studies, and maybe a few opportunities to study unique interests. In college, we’re able to take courses specific to what we hope to pursue after we graduate, learning more about the skills necessary to succeed in our respective fields. There seems to be a very important piece missing here, though, even at the college level: the teaching of soft skills.


In a study of 278 non-technical undergraduate courses, it was found that only five percent of syllabi mentioned soft skills in any capacity. Of those five percent, 47.1% mentioned communication, 34.2% mentioned teamwork, and 16.2% mentioned critical thinking (Groeneveld et al., 2020). As these findings demonstrate, hardly any college courses provide students with any information regarding soft skills or any opportunity to practice or develop them. Of those that do, there is very little standardization, suggesting that there is an unclear idea about which soft skills are most important when it comes to employability. In this way, unless students are already well-equipped with an array of soft skills due to extensive previous experiences, undergraduates are not being set up for success in the job market. 


Another study found that, within the field of nursing, specifically, soft skills are lacking. Given that nurses are constantly interacting with patients and their families, it’s safe to assume that nursing is a profession that would require individuals to have considerable interpersonal skills. The study, however, found that, although nursing should involve equal capacities for customer service and technical aspects, the scientific community has created perceptions that soft skills are relatively unimportant. Because nursing programs are primarily focused on the development of technical skills, they have yet to fully adopt training programs dedicated to the teaching of soft skills (Ng, 2020).


This reality, however, sharply contradicts the beliefs of the students in such nursing programs. A survey of 110 individuals found that 92 percent of nursing students believed that soft skills should be included in nursing curriculum. More than half of the students reported that they believed learning soft skills in an educational setting would help them to care for their patients (Ng, 2020).


Soft skills are sorely lacking

It turns out that members of the public who would benefit from the teaching of soft skills are also aware of the disconnect between necessity and curriculum. In 2017, according to a Customer Satisfaction Index, the score for healthcare professionals was 71.8 out of 100, which was below the national average. In a survey of 35 individuals, the following factors ranked at either four or five on a scale from one to five in terms of importance when it comes to healthcare, specifically nursing: reliability, promptness in helping, communication, sensitivity, courtesy, and confidence in action (Ng, 2020). This discrepancy between importance and performance further serves to demonstrate that educational programs, particularly in healthcare fields, fail to teach the soft skills expected by the public. 


Another study of 119 human resource professionals found that soft skills are lacking in this field, as well. The participants were asked to rank different factors in terms of importance on a scale from one to five, one being unimportant and five being very important. They were then asked to evaluate their managers in terms of performance when it came to these different factors, one being very poor and five being excellent. It was found that there was a considerable discrepancy between importance and performance for many factors, but especially “thinking before talking,” which represented managers’ communication skills; on the importance scale, most respondents selected five, and on the performance scale, most selected one (Weber et al., 2020) 


Soft skills in job recruitment

One 2020 study analyzed approximately 142,000 job advertisements to determine whether employers actively recruit individuals with pronounced soft skills. Of these hundreds of thousands advertisements, 70 percent requested that applicants have at least one soft skill, including but not limited to the following: oral communication, written communication, collaboration, and problem-solving (Rios et al., 2020). There is a glaring discrepancy between this value and that of the Groeneveld et al. study, which reported that only five percent of undergraduate-level syllabi mentioned at least one soft skill. As this disparity shows, students are vastly unprepared to meet the demands of employers when it comes to soft skills.


Use of technical vs. soft skills in the workplace

While some may think that soft skills aren’t valuable in some professions and therefore don’t need to be taught in college courses, a survey of 120 college graduates found that 42.4% of people use less than 40 percent of the specialized skills they learned in school at work. Instead, they ranked communication, teamwork, presentation skills, and time management as highly important in response to a question about which skills are essential for students to have in order to get jobs, with 97.1 percent of respondents emphasizing the importance of communication. When asked which type of skills students should foster on their own time, 72.3 percent said soft skills, which further demonstrates that there is a significant lack of emphasis on soft skills in educational programs of all varieties (Truc & Uyen, 2020). 

How to develop soft skills

When it comes to learning soft skills, there is an additional level of personal development that we don’t see with perfecting technical skills. Because everyone is required to learn certain information and techniques based on their profession, we all do so without question. Soft skills, however, have more to do with who we are as individuals, and are therefore much more difficult to teach and learn. In order for someone to really work on their soft skills, they have to be in touch with things like their communication style and want to make a change. Developing soft skills requires regular personal reflection and a true desire to improve. 


Here are some ways you can start working to improve your soft skills:


Try your best to adapt to changes in the workplace. While adaptability can be difficult, especially when you have a penchant for routines and feel upended when your daily schedule is altered, it demonstrates your ability to be flexible. (Rios et al., 2020). When it comes to workplace success, being adaptable shows your employers and your coworkers that you’re able to thrive in a variety of environments and can work through changes. 

Communicate openly and often. Communication skills are extremely important, especially in the workplace. If you’re too reserved and hesitate to share your thoughts or feelings with the people around you, they’re less likely to see you as an approachable person. Plus, open communication makes it easier for everyone to be in the know and helps to avoid future misunderstandings.  (Rios et al., 2020).

Work through conflicts. Your style of conflict resolution can be very indicative of how you go about solving problems in your everyday life. If you confront issues in the workplace head-on, you’ll also be able to work on your communication skills and even hone your emotional intelligence by interacting with your coworkers.  (Rios et al., 2020).

Be open to all kinds of feedback. Accepting constructive criticism and learning how to grow from our mistakes are some of the most important skills that any of us can have. While it can be challenging to open yourself up to feedback from others, it will help you to gain a better understanding of yourself. This way, you can get a taste of how others view you and work toward making yourself more communicative. (Rios et al., 2020). 

Develop soft skills with LIFE Intelligence

If you’re looking for a way to hone your soft skills on your own, LIFE Intelligence, a self development app, is here to assist you. LIFE Intelligence is a 9-Mission (topic) program that addresses every aspect of soft skills: from managing your emotions to managing time and goals to communicating and resolving conflict effectively. Mission 9 is all about leadership, tying the entire program together with self-awareness and emotional intelligence. The skills you'll learn in the LIFE app are essential for teamwork, as well as your personal relationships. It asks you to read and reflect, prompting you to think about your tendencies and behaviors as if you were working with a real leadership coach. If you're looking for an easy, affordable way to work on yourself, try LIFE Intelligence.

Abby Stark
February 17, 2021

References:

Groeneveld, W., Becker, B. A., & Vennekens, J. (2020). Soft skills: What do computing program syllabi reveal about non-technical expectations of undergraduate students? Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education, 287-293.

Ng, L. K. (2020). The perceived importance of soft (service) skills in nursing care: A research study. Nurse education today, 85, 104302.

Rios, J. A., Ling, G., Pugh, R., Becker, D., & Bacall, A. (2020). Identifying critical 21st-century skills for workplace success: A content analysis of job advertisements. Educational Researcher, 49(2), 80-89.

Tripathy, M. (2020). Relevance of Soft Skills in Career Success. MIER Journal of Educational Studies, Trends and Practices, 10(1), 91-102.

Truc, T. T. T., & Uyen, T. T. T. (2020). The importance of foreign languages and soft skills in graduates’ employability and competence: A case study. HUFLIT International Conference On Ensuring A High-Quality Human Resource In The Modern Age.

Weber, M. R., Lee, J., & Crawford, A. (2020). A suggested best practices for enhancing performance of soft skills with entry-level hospitality managers. Anatolia, 31(1), 76-87.

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