There’s no doubt that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) skills are essential in our fast-moving, tech-evolving, globally connected world. Companies are frantically investing time and money to recruit, retain and develop employees who know about artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, data science and the like.

Yet, in an interesting twist, the adoption of automation is starting to shift the focus beyond “hard skills” (technical know-how), creating a greater demand for employees with finely tuned “soft skills” (the way people do their jobs). As Susan Vitale, workplace expert and chief marketing officer at iCIMS, puts it: “When it comes to managing an entry-level employee or leading a project across many departments, a robot can’t do that.

How well does your workforce blend technical expertise with communication, collaboration and other soft skills? Here’s why you should boost soft skills in your organization.

Why Are Soft Skills So Important?

While technical skills and competencies are required to do the work of your business, it’s the soft skills that define and support your culture and customer interactions. Whether employees are customer-facing or someone who works behind the scenes, soft skills determine how well they engage with clients and colleagues.

LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends report found that 80 percent of employers believe soft skills are increasingly important to company success, and 92 percent say that soft skills matter as much as – or more than – hard skills. Employers and HR professionals place high value on these important soft skills:

  1. Adaptability
  2. Collaboration and teamwork
  3. Communication (verbal and written)
  4. Creativity and problem-solving
  5. Critical thinking
  6. Dependability and reliability
  7. Initiative
  8. Integrity and respect
  9. Persuasion
  10. Time Management

Who Needs Soft Skills?

Who needs soft skills? In a word, everyone. Management consulting firm McKinsey predicts that “demand for creativity in the global employment will significantly rise by 2030.” As the nature of work evolves, and the people who do the work changes, nurturing soft skills is especially important for some employee groups.  

Our youngest professionals make up one such group. Generation Z-ers (Gen Z) are just now entering the workforce. They grew up on digital communications, so are comfortable operating in a technology-rich environment. For them “social” means YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat, rather than in-person conversations and collaboration. With the career landscape for Gen Z in flux, “one way to future proof students as they take on the workplace [is to help] them develop soft skills.”

Managers, certainly, need expert soft skills to be effective. Managers set the tone. It’s up to them to get the most from individuals and teams. In managing people and projects, managers routinely navigate through the inevitable problems that bubble up in the mix. Not surprisingly, employees with stronger soft skills have a better chance of being promoted to leadership than colleagues with more experience but weaker soft skills.

Engineers and computer programmers are not historically known for their soft skills. Many thrived working alone in cubicles. But today, tech projects are more collaborative. More team-based. Technicians work more closely with each other and with the “business” side of the company to deliver practical solutions to problems as they emerge and morph. To contribute meaningfully in this environment, STEM-skilled employees need to hone their social skills, too.

Research by David Deming, a professor of education and economics at the Kennedy School (Harvard) backs that up. He found that workers who combine social and technical skills fare best in the modern economy. There are more jobs available and higher salaries paid for employees with strong math and social skills. In somewhat of a surprise, those with LOW math skills but HIGH social skills also fared well – and much better than math-skilled professionals with low social skills.

In somewhat of a surprise, those with LOW math skills but HIGH social skills also fared well – and much better than math-skilled professionals with low social skills.

How to Identify and Close Soft Skills Gaps?

Unlike hard skills, which are easier to test and measure, soft skills are less tangible. They are more open to subjective evaluation and more difficult to quantify. But resist the urge to rely on subjective measures. A robust competency model like Avilar’s Competency Model will include hundreds of skills to help you assess your employees across a range of hard and soft skill sets. Customize your competency model to reflect your organization’s unique needs and to capture your core skill set.

When you’re ready – especially for soft skills – solicit assessments from a variety of people. You’ll want to know how employees interact with managers, peers, subordinates and customers. Of course, the more you can use technology to capture this input, the more valuable the data will be to your employees, managers and your organization.

Once you’ve identified essential skills gaps, work with employees to close them. Expect some resistance. Prepare managers to explain that even a reputation for being the best coder, mechanic, engineer, designer, editor … is not enough if the employee doesn’t work well with others. You may need to help employees understand their broader place in your work community.

Be creative when offering opportunities to improve soft skills; online and video classes are not enough. Classroom training will give employees a chance to practice skills face-to-face with others. Mentoring is another excellent option, since employees get the attention, feedback and role modeling that comes from a relationship with a skilled mentor. Some companies are working with their local community colleges to hone communication, problem-solving, time management and critical thinking skills.

Whatever your approach, remember this: armed with creativity, analytical thinking, and strong communication skills, your employees, teams and company will be poised to thrive in the years ahead.

Wondering how to identify and close your employees’ soft skills gaps? Review our Optimize Your Workforce white paper to outline your approach. Or contact us to talk through competency models and schedule a demo of our skills management software, WebMentor Skills.

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