A Hard Look at Soft Skills

August 21, 2019 | Workforce Development

By Kelly Boutilier

Examining the return on investment

A quick online search of the term “soft skills” and you will find yourself inundated with articles. These broadly understood skills have become a buzz word in recent years as the economy changes and the skills needed for workplace success evolve.

While we can only guess at some of the technical skills we will need in the future, one thing is certain: soft skills will remain essential.

Surveys are showing that employers are unsatisfied by the caliber of candidates’ soft skills and suggest that educational institutions should do more to prepare people to enter the workforce. Yet soft skills are vaguely defined and lack a common assessment strategy. How can we develop these competencies and show the return on investment to companies when we do not have a clear and common framework within which to work?

A 2016 report by the World Economic Forum anticipated that by 2020 “overall, social skills— such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others—will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills…technical skills will need to be supplemented with strong social and collaboration skills.” The report goes on to list the top ten skills that will be needed by the workforce in 2020, the top three being problem solving, critical thinking, creativity.

Image - Top 10 Skills

Not a new thing

The importance of soft skills competencies in the workforce is not a new idea. A 2014 survey from Career Builder found that 77% of employers it surveyed believed soft skills were of equal importance as hard skills. Surveys from both 2018 and 2019 suggest that employers are dissatisfied with the soft skills proficiency demonstrated by job candidates. The 2018 McGraw-Hill Future Workforce Survey[2], found that just under 68% of employers surveyed felt that students were adequately prepared in soft skills. In 2019, when Adecco polled more than 500 senior executives 44% of respondents felt that employment candidates were lacking soft skills such as the ability to think critically, communicate clearly, collaborate with others, and to look at problems critically.

So, whose responsibility is it?

A 2019 survey conducted by , an educational content, technology, and services company based in Boston, found that approximately a third of employer respondents believed that schools had not adequately prepared students for the workplace.” Adecco, in its Future-Proofing the Workforce report argues that individuals, private companies and the public sector all have a role to play in ensuring the workforce has the skills it needs.

Yet, as Adecco’s 2019 poll reveals, while 89% of employers see the potential benefits of apprenticeship or training programs, nearly half say that cost is the primary deterrent to them being implemented.

So, why are businesses hesitant to invest in soft skills training?

While employers say that soft skills are essential to workplace success, and that candidates entering the workforce are not adequately prepared, soft skills can run the gamut from collaboration to creativity to problem solving to ethical decision making. What skills exactly are these employers looking for and how are they measuring proficiency in them?

As we look at the collection of surveys conducted by various organizations over the last couple years, I can see three primary questions we need to answer before executives will invest in soft skills training.

1. What exactly are soft skills?

There is a lack of clarity or definition about what soft skills mean in practical terms. Soft skills are rarely clearly defined beyond broad terms like “communication” and “creativity”. When we lack a clear definition, assessing proficiency is equally difficult. Unlike hard skills, where conditions are stable, (e.g. data entry where software might get updated but the platform is relatively static), soft skills are those we use to relate to ourselves and the changing conditions in the world around us.

The application of this skill set will look a little different each time it is applied and depending on the employment context (e.g. crafting a message for a webpage vs delivering a sales pitch to a client).

2. How will soft skills help grow my business?

There does not seem to be a consensus on how to measure soft skill acquisition and development. The private sector suggests schools should be responsible for teaching these skills. Clearly, the education has a role to play and there is some good news on this front.

As it turns out, the New York State Education Department has been working to create benchmarks for students in k-12 (primary -sec 5 for us folks in Quebec) in Social Emotional Learning (SEL). This is a fancy way of saying soft skills for kids.

These benchmarks are based on three goals that, while developed for school-aged children, are just as appropriate to adults in the workforce:

  • Develop self-awareness and self-management skills essential to success in school and in life.
  • Use social awareness and interpersonal skills to establish and maintain positive relationships.
  • Demonstrate ethical decision-making skills and responsible behaviours in personal, school and community contexts.

3. Is it worth it? What is the ROI for soft skills development?

Employers will not invest in soft skills training to develop their staff if they cannot clearly see the return on investment. Is the investment in soft skills training worth it? Yes! Research from the Hay Group revealed that a team’s performance can be enhanced by as much as 30% when managers incorporate a range of soft skills into their leadership approach.  An experiment run by MIT Sloan, found a return on investment of approximately 250% after it ran a 12-month training program for factory garment makers focussing on a broad range of soft skills. Trainees also reaped benefits from this training including increased self-esteem, assertiveness and confidence to access services offered by the government.

Soft skills training and development must be a priority for individuals, education providers and businesses if we want to be able to meet the challenges of the future economy. Human relationships will continue to play an important role in the work place, no matter what technological advances may occur. Investment in soft skills development is worth the cost to employers, but we must work together to clearly define these relational skills and share assessment strategies if we want to be effective and impactful.

Watch the Gaps Infographic
Source: Watch the skills gap, Adecco

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