Soft Skills Are Hard to Find

Soft Skills Are Hard to Find

FiveThirtyEight’s Andrew Flowers explores some new research suggesting that soft skills have overtaken technical skills as a key differentiator of talent in the labor market:

“The days of only plugging away at a spreadsheet are over,” David Deming, an associate professor of economics at Harvard, told me. Deming is the author of a new working paper, “The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market,” which shows how today’s high-skill, high-paying jobs — like consultants and managers — increasingly require interpersonal skills.

It’s not that hard skills are suddenly less desirable. Training in mathematics, computer science and other STEM fields (what Deming would count as “high cognitive skills”) is still a great investment; that “plugging away at a spreadsheet” is still valuable. “High-cognitive-skills workers still earn more,” Deming said, “but social skills increasingly are a complement to cognitive skills.” He argues that having strong cognitive skills is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a high-paying job. …

But an interesting thing happened at the turn of the century: “If anything, growth in high-wage, technical occupations slowed in the 2000s,” MIT economics professor David Autor said. Autor’s own research has documented how middle-skill, routine jobs (like those of machinists) decreased over the last few decades, whether through automation, globalization or some other factor. But Deming’s work “offers a couple of very nice insights” explaining the slowdown in the high-wage, technical jobs, Autor said. He thinks Deming’s paper raises an interesting question: Has there been a slowdown in growth of high-wage, technical jobs, or is there simply a shift in growth toward jobs that also require high social skills? It seems to be the latter.

A recent LinkedIn analysis from users who changed jobs between June 2014 and June 2015 indicated that the soft skills most in demand among employers include communication, organization, teamwork, punctuality, and critical thinking. The increasing importance of soft skills is why the conventional wisdom on liberal arts degrees is slowly turning around again, as employers come to a renewed appreciation of liberal arts majors’ communication and critical thinking skills. Unfortunately, many employers are having difficulty finding employees with those skills, Kate Davidson reports at the Wall Street Journal:

In a Wall Street Journal survey of nearly 900 executives last year, 92% said soft skills were equally important or more important than technical skills. But 89% said they have a very or somewhat difficult time finding people with the requisite attributes. Many say it’s a problem spanning age groups and experience levels. …

Workers with these traits aren’t easy to come by, said Cindy Herold, who runs the Old Europe restaurant in Washington. In a moment of frustration, Mrs. Herold recently put a sign outside seeking workers with “common sense.”

“I can teach somebody how to slice and dice onions. I can teach somebody how to cook a soup. But it’s hard to teach someone normal manners, or what you consider work ethic,” she said.

The soft skills shortage is a challenge in the UK as well. Writing at the CIPD’s blog, the Open University’s director of external engagement Steve Hill considers what HR, and particularly learning and development, can do to help solve it:

One approach is to build a truly practice-based solution. Courses that can be delivered flexibly – online or through mobile apps, for instance – offer employees the chance to engage in learning activities that fit around their daily work. Delivering training in this way encourages individuals to flex their soft-skill muscles, as they are continually prompted to apply course material to the commercial realities of their day-to-day workplace. Learners’ behavioural, problem-solving and creative capabilities are then stretched and developed. …

When focusing on soft skills, where the aim is to encourage behavioural and attitudinal change, evaluation should centre on areas such as engagement levels. Focus groups, questionnaires and in-depth conversations with managers, are all tools that measure culture and values, and therefore are particularly useful when measuring change in soft skills.