Professionals in business and academia have lamented the decline of an important quality in workers over the past several years: the ability to utilize soft skills. The reason for such a decline is unknown, but several societal factors may be at play — and could provide a way to fix the problem.
According to Training Industry, soft skills include communication, one’s work ethic, leadership ability, flexibility, working on a team, and interpersonal skills. Soft skills are abilities that may not be the primary focus of a specific job or career path, but they can ultimately be extremely beneficial to the way people operate in the workplace.
Soft skills, like managing time and solving problems, are necessary for basic life functions that not only make life easier, but also make one better at his or her job.
Employers are often interested in hiring candidates with these “soft” abilities, but the share of workers with the know-how seems to be going down.
According to iCIMS data from 2018, one in three recruiting specialists thought that job applicants’ soft skills had gone down in the past five years.
Authority figures appear to be where part of the blame gets placed.
For example, 97% of these recruiters felt that colleges and parental figures needed to work harder to teach students and children soft skills before they go get a job.
One story of such a situation was provided by Jim Link, CHRO of Randstad North America, a staff agency, in Atlanta. He shared how his college-age son came to him with a problem when he was unable to get in touch with people at the office during his summer internship. Link acted like a coach for his son for a week to help him address the issue.
“I taught him about being inspirationally irritating,” Link said. “It means saying what you need persuasively, up to the point of driving people nuts. What I was really teaching him was how to work with other people — about influence, negotiation and persuasion.”
This was an example, according to Link, of how modern-day college students are unable to come up with solutions to problems in creative ways.
“Adaptability, problem-solving, creativity, influence, drive, empathy and collaboration. What I’ve observed is that those things … aren’t being practiced by college graduates,” he said.
A 2018 Cengage/Morning Consult survey found that 64% of employers felt that it was “very or somewhat difficult” to find qualified applicants who had critical-thinking abilities, and 54% said finding people with communication skills was just as hard. In addition, 55% said that it was difficult to find people with interpersonal skills, and the same amount said it was difficult to find people with the ability to listen.
Another factor might not be the colleges themselves, but rather the courses and degrees that are being highlighted. One report addresses the types of jobs and fields students are pursuing.
When it comes to students going through science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs, the hard skills that will get them to pass are prioritized. When this happens, soft skills are not necessarily viewed as another vital piece to their success and they could be ignored altogether.
But soft skills are essential to the function and growth of a workplace — and increasingly so. Philip J. Hanlon, President of Dartmouth College, recognized this and says instead that he sees these soft skills as “power skills” to underline their importance.
In 2018, investor and owner of the Dallas Mavericks Mark Cuban said he believed that in a decade, “a liberal arts degree in philosophy will be worth more than a traditional programming degree.” This is because artificial intelligence and automatic technology will change jobs to such a degree that if someone has a degree in a field that allows them to think creatively and outside of the box, this will be worth much more than perhaps it seems to be now.
This also might be because degrees that promote soft skills could be less common and harder to come by, especially when college-age individuals choose not to go to college at all in the face of high tuition costs and undesirable college campus environments for many young people. The current economy also might not promise a position in their chosen specialty when they graduate.
Soft skills are also considered to be more important for some careers than they are for others. For example, if someone is working with customers on a regular basis, the ability to be kind and hear what the customer is saying is an essential way to be helpful. However, this type of soft skill shouldn’t be relegated to one corner, The Balance noted. People also have to be able to coexist peacefully with colleagues and others in the workplace.
While academics are increasingly pushed on kids, as well as extracurricular activities, it may be that soft skills are not as pronounced in the home and are not as highly valued.
Social media, as well, has played a part in physically separating people from one another so that they have more opportunities to connect online than in person, diminishing the improvement of soft skills over online communication skills.
A 2018 study published in Sage Journals pointed out that the drop-off in social capital is affecting how college graduates are able to learn these types of skills.
“Therefore, the results of this study give rise to the hypothesis that the decline in social capital at the macrosocial level is negatively influencing recent college graduates’ formation of soft skills. This may be due to the decrease in building social capital through face-to-face interaction, rather than due to colleges not preparing graduates for success in the business environment,” the article stated.
Spending more time in person with other people and improving these skills could end up being the most sought-after resume builder in the years to come.