As digital technologies become more prominent in how organizations work, employers are balancing the need for employees with digital and other hard skills with the need for employees with “soft” social, interpersonal, and communication skills. In fact, employers are increasingly prioritizing social and emotional skills; McKinsey, for example, predicts that skills such as communication, pattern recognition, logical reasoning, and creativity will be in high demand in the coming decades.
With these soft skills in high demand, Jake Bullinger proposed in a recent article at Fast Company that for-profit organizations consider hiring trained social workers to fill that need. Bullinger talks to Michàlle Mor Barak, a University of Southern California social work professor, who notes that companies today require expertise in societal good as they are increasingly under pressure to prioritize things like corporate social responsibility, work-life balance, and diversity and inclusion which weren’t on their radar a few decades ago. Social workers and other experts in social and emotional issues could be particularly helpful in people management and community engagement, Bullinger writes:
A human resources department staffed with therapists could better handle harassment claims, and recruiters working with social scientists could better target minority candidates. Corporate philanthropy arms would benefit, one can surmise, from case workers who understand a community’s greatest needs. The people best suited to run diversity and inclusion efforts might be those who study diversity and inclusion for a living.
I graduated with a master’s degree in social work in 2005 and have spent most of my career working in for-profit organizations. From my vantage point, social workers can provide an array of benefits, but organizations need to be realistic about what they can and can’t do.
Using its vast trove of user data, LinkedIn compared the US talent landscape in 2012 and 2017 to see what roles had grown the most in demand in that time. At the top of the professional networking site’s list of the top 20 fastest-growing jobs is “machine learning engineer,” the ranks of which have expanded nearly tenfold in the past five years, followed by “data scientist,” “sales development representative,” “customer success manager,” “big data developer,” and “full stack engineer.”
The proliferation of digital roles such as data scientist is unsurprising, given that these jobs are no longer limited to “tech companies” but are now needed in all sorts of organizations. However, Maria Ignatova notes at LinkedIn’s Talent Blog, there are two other key takeaways from the list that employers can learn from:
Hiring for outstanding soft skills is a high priority: Many of the roles on the list are customer-facing and underscore the importance of being able to screen candidates for soft skills. Traditionally, that has been one of the most challenging parts of the hiring process, with standard interviews just not cutting it. Many companies now are starting to use soft skills assessments or job auditions to see candidates in a more authentic light.
Some roles are so new, that the current talent pool is minimal: A few of the jobs on this list didn’t even exist five years ago, or if they did, they were niche with very few professionals in these roles. This means that you have to get creative when it comes to sourcing talent and be willing to approach people from different fields and consider non-standard skillsets. Reskilling the workforce due to shortage of talent is one of the top trends that will impact you if you are hiring for these roles.
LinkedIn’s findings also point to something we’ve found in our research at CEB, now Gartner: The convergence of demand around a smaller number of critical roles. Among S&P 100 companies, we found, 39 percent of job postings last year were for just 29 roles.
Randstad’s Workmonitor survey for Q3, 2017 finds that 90 percent of employees worldwide believe that regularly updating their skills and competencies is essential to enhancing their employability, and 91 percent consider it their own responsibility to do so. However, Randstad highlights another, more troubling finding from the US, where many employees and employers “are not taking action for upskilling opportunities in the workplace”:
In fact, over a third of U.S. employees report they have done nothing to upskill in the past 12 months, where upskilling is defined as attending workshops, completing online courses, receiving consultation from a specialist, participating in personal coaching sessions or pursuing further education. … When asked to consider a variety of types of upskilling opportunities over the last 12 months, survey respondents revealed:
- 67 percent of U.S. employees say they feel they need more training and skills to stay up-to-date.
- Nearly 40 percent of U.S. employees say their employers have not offered and paid for anything related to upskilling.
- 40 percent of U.S. employees say they wouldn’t arrange for and pay out of their own pockets to upskill themselves.
These survey findings highlight the fundamental challenges in raising the skill level of the American workforce, as well as the debate over who is responsible for doing so.
Although software engineers and other technical employees are essential to his business, “I’m still hiring more humanities majors than STEM grads, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon,” Michael Litt, co-founder of the video marketing startup Vidyard, writes at Fast Company:
At my company, as at many tech companies, developers only make up 15–25% of our workforce. … Think about the other roles that deal with developing and marketing tech products and services: Sales teams need to understand human relationships. Marketing teams have to understand what gets people excited and why. Internally, our HR teams need to know how to build a community and culture so the company can continue to thrive. The nuts and bolts of software development are just one small part of any successful tech company. It would actually be foolish to limit my hiring only to people with tech backgrounds.
Even within strictly technical roles—including the product and engineering positions that form the basis of STEM know-how—a humanities foundation can be invaluable. Some of our software, UI, and UX designers come from a fine-arts backgrounds, for instance. Yes, coding skills are important there, but so is an understanding of usability—in other words, the uniquely human ability to draw upon experience to design an elegant solution that real people will actually find helpful.
In an increasingly interconnected global economy, the ability to operate in a multicultural and multilingual environment is an increasingly desirable trait among employees, especially in leadership roles. Major companies are looking to add more international experience to their boardrooms, and a lack of intercultural skills can derail the careers of global leaders.
Accordingly, fluency in more than one language is one of many soft skills employers are looking for in talent today. The value of polyglot employees is the subject of Gabrielle Hogan-Brun’s new book Linguanomics: What is the Market Potential of Multilingualism? Writing at Quartz, Hogan-Brun lays out the case for how multilingual employees, and particularly multilingual teams, can give an organization a leg up in innovation:
Observations of multi-language work teams show that mixed-language groups have a propensity to find innovative solutions for practical problems. This is because they use a range of communication strategies in flexible and dynamic ways. When speakers from different language backgrounds work together using a common language, they draw on subconscious concepts that lie below the surface of the language they happen to be conversing in. …
So what is going on in the heads of these polyglots?
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In recent years, soft skills like communication and critical thinking have become an increasingly important differentiator of talent, and employers have reported having a hard time finding employees with soft skills to round out their set of hard skills. As a greater share of work is automated, these soft skills may become even more important if social interactions indeed turn out to be the hardest human tasks for robots to learn. With all that in mind, Dan Kopf argues at Quartz that the most important job skill for the future generation of employees isn’t being taught in US schools:
US students are judged by how well they score on math, reading and science tests. US educators are assessed by their student’s improvement on those tests. The US labor market, however, is increasingly placing a premium on pleasant personalities. Schools that focus narrowly on cognitive skills without teaching social skills may be overlooking a key component to workplace success.
Research from the Harvard Economist David Deming shows that, since 1980, the proportion of jobs calling for social skill-related tasks rose much faster (pdf) than jobs calling for basic math and reading. In other words, as the labor market has changed, a lot more Americans are finding themselves working at places like Starbucks coffee shops than at Ford manufacturing plants. Deming estimates that, from 1980 to 2012, the proportion of jobs that called for math tasks increased by 5% while routine tasks (repetitive assignments that don’t require analysis) declined by 10%. Meanwhile, jobs calling for social tasks and service tasks increased by over 15%.
As more and more organizations wake up to the fact that they need workers with liberal arts educations, employment rates and starting salaries are on the rise among graduates with degrees in the arts and humanities, Nikki Waller reported at the Wall Street Journal last week:
Class of 2015 graduates from those disciplines are employed at higher rates than their cohorts in the class of 2014, and starting salaries rose significantly, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ annual first-destination survey of recent graduates in the workforce. Degree holders in area studies—majors like Latin American Studies and Gender Studies—logged the largest gains in full-time employment and pay, with average starting salaries rising 26% to $43,524 for the class of 2015, compared with the previous year’s graduates. Language studies posted the second-highest salary gains.
Though area studies majors comprise less than 1% of all graduates in the survey, the pay numbers show employers are seeking hires with communication skills and comfort in multicultural environments, said Edwin Koc, NACE’s director of research, public policy and legislative affairs. … Behind the numbers is a growing desire among employers for hires with strong communication skills, said Mr. Koc. After complaining that new hires’ soft skills are not up to par, “employers may be reconsidering how they’re approaching recruiting college graduates, and may not be so focused on hiring a particular major,” he said.
The bottom line here is that soft skills are increasingly in demand and also in short supply. Undeniably valuable in today’s work environment, these skills are generally harder to teach and cannot always be easily assessed or identified during the interview process. Sourcing for more talent with liberal arts backgrounds is one way to soft skills, but there are also some other ways that they can ensure they are hiring for and building soft skills among their workforce, such as: