The Sad State of Soft Skills and How L&D Can Fix It
1. What Soft Skills Are and Why Your Organization Needs Them
In this age of emphasis on education in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math), research by LinkedIn, Google, Deloitte, and other organizations confirms what learning and business professionals know well: that technical capabilities are only part of the picture when it comes to business success.
What Are Soft Skills in Business
Soft skills (also known as people skills, social skills, transferable skills, and other non-technical designations) are critical for achieving balance between ongoing rapid technology advancements and the human side of business. Striking that balance requires emotional intelligence and people savvy—the interpersonal, collaborative, problem-solving, and other abilities needed to engage and work well with colleagues, win customers, provide effective leadership, and drive performance and growth.
How Does Your Organization Define Soft Skills?
Companies—and people—don’t always agree on the meaning of soft skills. Your organization may create its own definition, or adapt one from examples such as these:
- Business Dictionary.com: Communicating, conflict management, human relations, making presentations, negotiating, team building, and other such ability, defined in terms of expected outcomes and not as a specific method or technique such as statistical analysis.
- Deloitte: A set of non-technical skills—like communication skills, emotional judgement, problem solving, and digital literacy.
- U.S. Agency for International Development: A broad set of skills, competencies, behaviors, attitudes, and personal qualities that enable people to effectively navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals. These skills are broadly applicable and complement other skills such as technical, vocational, and academic skills.
- CareerBuilder: Soft skills may include nearly any ability that pertains to the way you approach others or handle your professional life.
It Takes More than Tech Skills at Google
Few would argue that Google exemplifies success in the technology space. Like other high-tech businesses, the organization grew out of expertise in the STEM disciplines. Yet when Google examined more than a decade of data on their hiring, promotions, and other talent considerations, STEM capabilities were at the bottom of the list of leading qualities characterizing the company’s top employees.
The Washington Post described the research findings: “Top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills:
- Being a good coach
- Communicating and listening well
- Possessing insights into others (including others’ different values and points of view)
- Having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues
- Being a good critical thinker and problem solver
- Being able to make connections across complex ideas
Subsequent research reiterated the importance of soft skills for individuals, but also revealed them to be distinguishing traits of the most productive teams at Google.
People Skills Are Crucial Everywhere
Another online leader, LinkedIn, recently released its 2018 Workplace Learning Report, featuring responses from about 4,000 surveyed L&D professionals, business executives, people managers, and employees worldwide. The research found all participating groups in agreement that role-specific technical skills are vital, but soft skills—particularly leadership, communication, and collaboration—are even more critical “to fuel people and business growth.”
As LinkedIn’s data demonstrated, the critical role of soft skills in business is a perception shared globally. Major research by Deloitte underscored that commonality. In Australia, for instance, Deloitte reported that one in four employers struggle to fill entry-level jobs because applicants lack soft skills, and soft-skill demand there exceeds supply by 45 percentage points.
Given the importance placed on soft skills, it isn’t surprising that LinkedIn’s global respondents named training for those skills as this year’s top priority for talent development professionals.
Coming Up Short on Soft Skills
The need for soft skills by businesses worldwide is well documented. However, it has become increasingly challenging for companies to find talent with those capabilities.
In the U.S., Adecco surveyed senior business leaders and found 92% confirmed a workforce skills gap, and nearly half report a lack of soft skills—particularly in communication, creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration. Almost two-thirds of the executives predicted investments in U.S. companies will fall because of workforce skills gaps, and many foresee skills deficits negatively affecting product development, corporate growth, and bottom-line results.
PayScale’s most recent exploration of workforce skills preparedness highlighted the gap, too, adding job seekers’ perspectives to the mix. It reported that 87% of recent graduates felt themselves prepared for the workforce, but only half of hiring managers agreed. The managers pointed to soft skills (especially writing and speaking) as grads’ biggest deficits.
The Soft Skills Gap Poses Risks for All
As Adecco noted, the soft skills gap affects organizations in multiple ways, potentially creating negative impacts on almost every aspect of business operations and overall performance. Employees who lack people skills are less likely to know how to navigate workplace politics to get their jobs done or understand how to be effective team players.
Company representatives who are unable to establish and nurture relationships with customers and suppliers put brand credibility at risk and can’t contribute to business results and growth. Nor will such individuals prove to be effective people managers or the inspiring leaders that organizations need to drive future success.
Businesses have a lot to lose, but individuals feel the fallout from soft-skills deficits, too. Those PayScale-surveyed graduates who see themselves as being ready for the workplace, are in for disappointment if job offers aren’t forthcoming. And that’s a distinct possibility: two-thirds of HR managers acknowledge that they would hire candidates with good soft skills over technically proficient applicants who lacked them. In fact, fewer than one in 10 managers said they’d hire applicants with strong tech skills and poor soft skills.
When individuals who lack soft skills do find jobs, their productivity and performance are likely to be less than top-notch. Further, their earnings may lag, and their prospects for advancement trail those of their more socially skilled peers. Over the long term, employees who aren’t able to work well with their colleagues and be productive are likely to join the ranks of the disengaged and, perhaps, ultimately, the unemployed.
Despite the gloomy picture of extensive soft skills shortages, there are solutions for businesses and workers, alike. For organizations, progress centers on active involvement of the L&D function and begins with identifying the soft skills needed to drive success. And for employees and job seekers, understanding which skills are in demand is the first step toward building those capabilities to greatly enhance employability and advancement prospects.
2. Which Soft Skills are Most in Demand in Today’s (and Tomorrow’s) Workplaces?
Unlike technical, or hard, skills that are easily defined and measured, soft skills can cover a wide range of capabilities and may be challenging to quantify. That ambiguity is reflected in the diverse efforts to define soft skills. Further, as Deloitte points out, “Soft skills are clearly important for all occupations and industries. Yet outside of communication skills, the importance of individual skills varies across industries and roles.”
Their potential for vague interpretation aside—or, perhaps, because of it—much research has focused on identifying the soft skills that employers value most highly at present, as well as the capabilities that the evolving nature of work will demand in coming years.
The Top Ten Soft Skills in Demand Today
LinkedIn, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), other organizations, and subject matter experts have published lists of the soft skills employers say they want in job applicants and their workforces today. Naturally, there is some variation in wording, but there is significant similarity in core concepts.
Across leading sources, this consensus on the most critical soft skills emerges: communication (both written and verbal), problem solving (including use of critical thinking, reasoning, and creativity), ability to work on teams (collaboration), interpersonal capabilities (such as relating to others, courtesy, and managing conflict), strong work ethic, flexibility/adaptability (including change management, resilience, and ability to manage multiple tasks), and emotional intelligence (especially reliability, responsibility, and integrity).
For organizations operating in worldwide marketplaces, Hult International Business School cited seven soft skills critical to global business success: cross-cultural communication skills, excellent networking abilities, collaboration, interpersonal influence, adaptive thinking, emotional intelligence, and resilience.Narrowing the focus to new graduates and others preparing for initial entry into the work world, the U.S. Agency for International Development defined these “key soft skills for youth workforce success”: social skills, communication skills, higher-order thinking skills, self-control, and a positive self-concept.
The takeaway for L&D is this: Even when the context of their application varies, the most critical soft skills needed by today’s organizations tend to remain constant (though their levels of importance may shift). To gain insight into soft-skills priorities for your organization, consider the company’s specific business goals (current and future), its existing workforce skillsets, identified skills gaps, evolving roles, and skillsets of the external applicant talent pool.
Soft Skills for the Workplace of the Future
As work and those who perform it continue to evolve, are the soft skills needed in workplaces today likely to remain the same in coming years? Although the disruptive nature of the business world and factors affecting it make forecasts of the future especially challenging, some projections have been made of the capabilities employers will require in the years ahead.
World Economic Forum predicts 2020 will see the demand for social skills exceed that for technical skills, noting that “technical skills will need to be supplemented with strong social and collaboration skills.” The organization’s projection of the top capabilities needed just two years from now highlights a continuing focus on soft skills:
Taking a longer-term look into the future, Deloitte predicts that “soft-skill-intensive occupations will account for two-thirds of all jobs by 2030,” adding that growth in those jobs will be double that of other roles.
Won’t the influence of technology, especially artificial intelligence, mean more technical skills will be needed? PwC envisions a 2030 workplace where automation will change the job landscape, but says, “By replacing workers doing routine, methodical tasks, machines can amplify the comparative advantage of those workers with problem solving, leadership, EQ (Emotional Intelligence), empathy, and creativity skills.” Those soft-skilled workers will see their value rise.
In the years ahead, soft skills will continue to differentiate employees and leaders in workplaces worldwide. For L&D, bringing that future to life begins with powerful soft skills training today.
3. What You Should Know About Effective Soft Skills Training
Given the current importance of soft skills, it’s not surprising that business leaders, learning and development professionals, and employees, alike, agree that training for those capabilities is a top 2018 priority for L&D.
At the same time, business leaders are ramping up pressure for L&D to identify future skills trends and prevent gaps before they occur. With greater soft skills needs projected in coming years, building training programs and strategies around those capabilities now is a proactive step in addressing current training demands while also demonstrating L&D’s future focus.
Soft Skills Training In 2018: Key Takeaways for L&D
Begin with the Skills Needed: In this eBook, you’ve seen the soft skills most in demand in today’s workplaces and needs projected for the near future. As you structure your own training program, include any additional soft skills required to achieve your organization’s business goals, strategies, and plans.
The L&D Takeaway: Your L&D team may need to do a skills-gap analysis and look at existing performance issues to gain an accurate and comprehensive picture of the full range of soft skills needs unique to your company. If a deeper dive is indicated, there are assessments and tools available to assist L&D in gauging the soft skills strengths and deficits of current and prospective employees.
Learning Content: 2018 employee priorities for training content reflect evolving and specific preferences. More than 90% of surveyed workers say they want training that is engaging and fun, easy to understand and complete, and relevant to their needs. Nearly as many want content that is applicable not only to their work, but also in their personal lives; almost half of the employees said that their workplace training was successful because it was presented in ways that made the material easy to digest and retain.
The L&D Takeaway: Soft skills training offers L&D unique opportunities to provide learning that is as applicable in employees’ personal lives as it is in the workplace. Emphasizing that aspect of training can help strengthen motivation to learn. Leveraging video training, microlearning, and interactivity enhances engagement, streamlines time required for training, and makes learning easy to consume and retain.
Learning Delivery: Looking at the ways employees want to consume learning in 2018, LinkedIn found 68% reporting that they prefer to learn at work. Nearly six in 10 want training they can do at their own pace. About half say they prefer flexible learning that enables them to access information when and where needed, a finding that highlights the importance of multi-device access.
The L&D Takeaway: When L&D professionals were asked about their strategies for delivering training, they reported greater reliance on online solutions. Classroom training still tops the list of current learning delivery approaches, but significant increases in the use of online/eLearning were reported, along with a nearly 20-percentage-point uptick in use of external providers for those eLearning assets. Further, many talent developers expect learning budget increases, which they plan to use for eLearning expansion.
Motivation and engagement: A whopping 94% of employees told LinkedIn that an employer’s investment in their career development would keep them at that company for a longer period, and that employer commitment was especially important to Millennials (87%).
Incentives, colleagues’ recommendations, and opportunities for advancement are significant factors in motivating employees to spend time learning new skills. But the single greatest driver of employee interest in training, according to the LinkedIn study, is a worker’s manager. Fifty-six percent of employees said they would devote more time to learning new skills if their managers directed them to specific modules or courses.
The L&D Takeaway: For L&D, the manager’s influence is a particularly revealing insight, and clear direction that providing easy ways to involve managers in recommending soft skills training could contribute to stronger employee participation and engagement.
(Media Partners has included a free Soft Skills Quick Reference Tool for Managers that can help in this area.)
Return on Investment: Certainly, logic suggests that building skills that are critical to gaining new customers, enhancing collaboration, driving innovation, and improving business results constitutes a good spend for organizations. In fact, studies by Harvard University and others report returns of more than 250 percent on soft skills training.
The L&D Takeaway:For L&D, crafting learning strategies to improve soft skills should be no different than designing any other training intervention. That is, measurement—of ROI, quality, and effectiveness—must be built in to the program structure.
The Association for Talent Development (ATD) says, “Soft skills programs should perform just like any other training program. If the learning is designed to be applied, it should be applied in the work environment with an action, activity, or behavior change that can be measured.” ATD and others provide detailed advice on measurement strategies for soft skills training.
Where to Find Engaging, High-Quality Soft Skills Training Solutions
The latest research into organizational learning makes it clear that, more than ever, employees know what and how they want to learn. And executives worldwide understand that soft skills training is crucial in shaping workforces with the capabilities to execute business strategies now and in coming years.
Increasingly, L&D and HR professionals charged with providing soft skills training are looking beyond their organizational walls for solutions that truly connect with learners and help change behavior.
Enter Media Partners—producer and provider of engaging, effective soft skills content, suitable for delivery in a number of different ways. Whether used in facilitator-led classroom training, individual online learning, mobile learning, or a blend of methods, our award-winning films, micro-learning content, and eLearning courses deliver consistent knowledge that’s memorable, fun, easy to understand, and as relevant off the job as it is in the workplace.
We believe in equipping learning leaders, facilitators, and learners with all they need to achieve a successful result. Our videos, along with accompanying workshop facilitation materials and self-study components, are created by a team of experienced filmmakers and instructional designers. We support this content with job aids, learning reinforcement tools, and free resources (like self-assessments, infographics, and activities).
When your organization’s executives turn to you for soft skills training—no matter what your definition of soft skills may be—Media Partners is the answer. Our experienced sales consultants provide personalized product and delivery recommendations, while our free full-length previews help you narrow your search and ensure that you choose products that will generate the results your organization demands.
The list below is just a sample of the Media Partners programs available for today's most in-demand soft skills areas:
Utilize the attached Soft Skills Quick Reference Tool that shows specific behaviors that can be corrected or developed through different types of soft skills training.
Connect with Media Partners today and find the high-performance soft skills training solutions you need.