'Soft skills': The intangible qualities companies crave
Technical prowess is important for securing a job. But lower-profile skills like communication and critical thinking are becoming just as crucial – if not more.
In order to do your job effectively, you need hard skills: the technical know-how and subject-specific knowledge to fulfil your responsibilities. But in a forever-changed world of work, lesser-touted ‘soft skills’ may be just as important – if not even more crucial.
These skills are more nuanced, even low-profile: think personal characteristics and behaviours that make a strong leader or a good team member. Especially amid the normalisation of remote work, where collaboration and the ways to innovate have changed, companies are beginning to catch on to the importance of these intangibles when building out diverse, successful teams.
As a result, employers are increasingly considering a candidate’s soft skills as closely as their experience and explicit technical specialties, say experts.
What are soft skills?
There is no definitive list of soft skills, but the term essentially refers to abilities beyond the technical. Confidence with certain software, for instance, is a hard skill; on the other hand, knowing how to analyse different software packages to figure out what a company should be using requires critical thinking: a soft skill.
Another major soft-skill area is communication. Effectively communicating with colleagues, clients and management requires dexterity and emotional intelligence. Empathy, teamwork and compassion are also skills that fall under that same umbrella.
Many soft skills are highly practical, like efficiency, prioritisation, organisation and time management – all traits that are becoming increasingly critical for remote and hybrid workers. “People who are high performers have the discipline to structure their day, and to be highly effective within a set time frame,” says Frazer.
A notable shift
As many of the highly technical parts of work are becoming increasingly automated, or replaced by technological tools, companies are instead looking for workers who can problem-solve, juggle larger responsibilities and work well with others.
Additionally, soft skills have become even more important in the post-pandemic, largely remote work landscape. For instance: communication can be much more nuanced and complex when workers don’t see colleagues face to face. Adaptability, too, is a soft skill – and the past two years have called for a lot of it.
As a result, employers are actively soliciting candidates who have these intangibles. In a 2021 review of more than 80 million job postings across 22 industry sectors, education non-profit America Succeeds found that almost two-thirds of positions listed soft skills among their qualifications. And across all the job postings, of the 10 most in-demand skills, seven were ‘soft’, including communication, problem solving and planning.
The same report showed certain types of positions prioritise soft skills even more: they were the most desired qualifications for 91% of management jobs, 86% of business-operations jobs and 81% of engineering jobs – a fact that may be surprising, since it’s a field generally considered highly technically focused.
Articulating your ‘moon-shot mentality’
We tend to be aware of our strengths, but honing interpersonal skills starts with soliciting feedback to identify your weaknesses and blind spots. Improving them may mean forcing yourself out of your comfort zone. If you want to improve your imaginative thinking or problem-solving, for instance, try sitting in on brainstorming sessions with the company’s creatives.
Emotional intelligence can be increased, too, by developing social awareness and learning to regulate your own feelings and respond to others with empathy. On top of improving job prospects, that has added benefits: research shows people with high emotional intelligence are less likely to experience stress and anxiety.
As hiring managers increasingly search for people with these intangibles, they may tailor their interview questions to try to uncover a candidate’s soft skillset. “When you ask someone, ‘give me an example of a time you were really resilient in your professional life,’ or, ‘tell me a story that highlights your moon-shot mentality,’ you’re asking them to demonstrate those mindsets,” he says.
As for the interviewee, “let’s say you’re asked, ‘what’s your approach toward continuous learning?’” he continues. That’s a moment to show the interviewer you’re willing and excited about learning, and have the skills to do it. “The best response would be to say, ‘well, I went to this conference last year; I attend this webinar once a month; I just finished reading this book; I subscribe to this industry periodical.”
To best prepare for situations like these, candidates should identify their strongest soft skills in advance, and be ready to demonstrate them, he says. The technical skills and experience on your CV will always be important, but in the changed world of work, they’re not enough: you’ll still need to convince recruiters you possess the softer skills that will help you succeed.
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