Experts agree: the pandemic and the great resignation have made it more necessary for the workforce pipeline to concentrate on fostering soft skills. Staffing is only getting more competitive, and when employers do get candidates who seem ideal on paper, it turns out they’re not as ideal as initially thought because of the non-technical attributes they’re missing.
Multiple media sources have cited a study published by America Succeeds, an advocacy group for improving public education from grade school to grad school, and the study has been positioned the improvement of educational outcomes as a national security issue and a cornerstone of the United States’ economic advantage.
Idaho communities are calling these “durable skills” with local news outlets reporting that those are what employers in their state want most based on that same study on which America Succeeds partnered with Emsi Burning Glass. Moreover, eSchool News calls soft skills “the next big thing.” Rather than calling them durable skills, others in the hybrid work world are also calling them power skills according to Reuters.
There’s a reason durable skills are getting so much attention in talent acquisition conversations. Employers are realizing that they’ve only been focusing their hiring strategies on getting the hard skills they needed to staff their teams, and they’re simultaneously realizing it was a mistake.
“The answer is multi-faceted, but it begins with adjusting our organizational approach to professional soft skill learning, which is commonly overlooked in today’s rush to digitalization,” said Jan Meyer, senior vice president at SAP, an smart enterprise software company focused on machine learning, Internet of things, and advanced analytics.
Meyer feels like the Great Resignation has proven that the workforce is plagued by misalignment between employers and job seekers, “as well as deteriorating company culture.”
The Big Mistake: A Case in Point
Employers have to staff various and sundry roles to execute and grow, but in doing so, they also tend to create a ladder on which every rung represents a higher compensation rate. Bigger comp statistically correlates with greater requirements for technical proficiencies, and those are the hard skills on which organizations focus their recruiting tactics.
For instance, a company that manufactures heating, ventilation, and air conditioning units can also sell their product and provide installation and repair services. This produces disparate job types under one umbrella, but the employer’s recruiting approach to each role differs greatly from job to job. The argument can be made that soft skills are already a significant focus for staffing the sales team for example, and the same is true for customer service representatives. They’ll hire based on social skills, experience, the likelihood that a candidate is quick on the uptake, and anecdotal evidence the candidate is well-equipped for teamwork.
HVAC repair technicians have to have very specific competencies, however, to adequately perform the tasks required of them, and because these include learned skills, the recruiters are going to focus more on those things in the interview process. They don’t have as much time to even focus on soft skills because they have to reliably figure out whether or not a candidate genuinely has the technical proficiencies for the job.
When the company hires a repair technician, it’s because their hiring manager found the person they feel best meets each criterion on a list of requisite competencies, but when that person’s deployed into the field and has to enter customers’ homes, his or her poor communication, inability to adapt to changing circumstances, and social ineptitude could easily cost that company business.
The Big Data
To be fair, that study Fox News cited from America Succeeds can objectively be proven to not have concluded what they reported. The article reads: “The study argues that ‘the long-term success of our economy, our country’s competitive advantage, and our national security requires improving educational outcomes.’” The study didn’t actually argue that. This quote comes from the organization’s core beliefs, which are featured on the About page right after the table of contents. It’s something the organization generally considers to be the truth.
However, the study itself did find evidence that improving educational outcomes — a fundamental tenet of their mission statement — would be best accomplished by focusing parts of both education and job training on soft skills. America Succeeds partnered with Emsi Burning Glass to analyze 82 million job postings from 2019 and 2020, which makes for a staggering sample size.
The study shows that 70% of the most frequently requested skills in job postings are what they classified as soft skills, and they found employers requiring these skills close to four times as often as they request the top five most sought hard skills. They also found that the jobs most at risk of being automated in the near future are jobs for which the demand for soft skills is lowest.
Furthermore, demand for soft skills proved highest for 91% of management jobs, 86% of business operations roles, and 83% of sales jobs. These were characterized in the report as jobs that align more with the future of work in general because the 22% of jobs for which soft skill demand was low are those at risk of automation displacement. About 80% of all U.S. job postings from service organizations, which account for half the job market, required at least one of the defined soft skills.
“Companies will continue to compete on innovation and talent like never before, which makes the use, sharing, and transparency of skills data across stakeholder groups even more important to the world of work,” said Cheryl Oldham, senior vice president of the Education and Workforce Department at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. “Collective action around Durable Skills is one way to ensure Americans have the right skills for the jobs of today and tomorrow, and the economy has the skilled workforce it needs to grow.”
Those defined soft skills are about 100 in number, grouped into 10 core competencies. Disagreement about what is and is not a soft skill would be the primary area for variability in their results, but the conclusions they drew from the data they collected make a strikingly compelling argument for pivoting both our educational institutions and employers’ training methods toward more soft-skill concentrations regardless.
Demand for soft skills was, as expected, highest in the retail industry, which required three or more durable skills for over 5 million of its 2019-2020 job postings. Other industries — as officially defined by the North American Industry Classification System — in the top five, though, were professional, scientific, and technical services; administrative, support, and waste management; healthcare and social assistance; and manufacturing.
These are all ironically far more hard-skill oriented and best known for the technical skills involved in their respective jobs. The poster-job for healthcare, for example, would be a doctor or a nurse, and most of all, hard skills are the first and even second consideration for who to hire in these roles.
“By emphasizing soft skill training and providing the necessary learning and development opportunities, companies are driving greater retention while ensuring improved alignment and success,” Meyer also said.
Look What It’s Come To
Micro-credentials are the future of tertiary education according to the student newspaper at the University of Ottawa, The Australian Financial Review, and (to an extent) New York Governor Kathy Hochul. The student body at U of O would know. Their province, Ontario, began investing $59.5 million into micro-credentials development back in 2020.
Micro-credentials are an alternative means of skilling up after graduation; they’re like half-degrees or sub-certifications. Schools can offer them, but so can private companies. An example would be a company like Oracle — best known for cloud technology — awarding a graduate a micro-credential for completing a week of work that serves as on-the-job training but also provides Oracle with legitimately useful labor in the process. It’s an internship, except it allows you to put more letters after your name that correspond with super-specific skills recognized in your field.
This is a relatively new concept, yet soft skills are already being injected into the so-called micro-pathways that lead to these sub-certs, so to speak. Revisit the HVAC example we had earlier. Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona offers its own HVAC micro-pathway. This would equip the HVAC repair technician with not juts the technical skills he or she’s already been learning but also the job experience he or she lacks, emphasizing the empathy a technician would need for a client who has been without air conditioning for 24 hours in Arizona heat.
That’s how specific these micro-pathways can be, and their value is measured in soft skills. In other words, the labor market has reached a point at which institutions are having to compensate for what some might consider shortcomings on the part of higher education or onboarding oversights on the parts of employers.