Are soft skills important in the age of the technical skills gap? Yes, they are—more than ever.
In 2016, The Wall Street Journal surveyed over 900 executives to discover the relative importance they placed on technical and soft skills. Fully 92% reported that soft skills like communication, curiosity, and critical thinking were equally important as technical skills. More surprising still, 89% stated they have a very difficult or somewhat difficult time finding hires with soft skills. This mirrors my own anecdotal results speaking with employers from all kinds of industries all over the country.
These are eye-opening results, to say the least. Technical competence for a career has always mattered, but the way a person approaches his or her career is becoming increasingly important. Even in a time when the technical skills gap is growing, it’s no longer enough to have the hard skills to perform the job. Soft skills, once taken for granted, have become a hot commodity in today’s workplace.
Personally, I have always found the term “soft skills’” to be a weak one to describe the robust abilities and attitudes that characterize the successful worker. “Soft skills” sounds like these abilities are easy to acquire or just not that important. So I coined the term “professional skills” to better indicate the high level of behavior, character, and abilities that set a professional apart. This creates a far more aspirational picture to place in front of young people preparing for their path ahead.
What Are Professional Skills?
Quite simply, professional skills are the personal attributes to succeed in the workplace. They include critical traits and abilities such as work ethic, communication, ability to accept feedback, confidence, leadership, flexibility, integrity, critical thinking, problem-solving, work-life balance, punctuality, stress management, and many more. They are universal across all levels, in all industries, at all times.
When I think of professional skills, I think of the individuals that I truly enjoy working with. These include members of my own team at TFS as well as the education and business professionals I interact with daily. These individuals approach their work with passion. They’re honest, hardworking, and well spoken. They can take on a leadership role, but they also know when to defer to others. They communicate clearly and display confidence. They’re not perfect, but they’re always striving to improve. They’re professionals and they have the skills to prove it.
Preparing Young People for Success
The development of professional skills should start with career exploration—in my opinion, as early as middle school. Young people don’t need to wait until they enter the workforce to start learning how to best function as part of a team in that setting. As educators and workforce training leaders, we can focus on the simple actions and habits of professionals:
- Be present and engaged
- Manage time and be organized
- Communicate effectively
- Network and collaborate with others
- Use critical thinking
- And many others
There are many ways to incorporate professional skills into lesson planning. Anyone familiar with my company TFS is probably aware of our strategy for imparting professional skills in the classroom, the Career Tree. Right alongside technical abilities, professional skills are foundational to a young person’s long-term success.
What’s more, professional skills can be viewed as life skills translated to the workforce. Young people who start cultivating professional skills now are setting themselves up to win not just in the workplace, but in their personal lives as well. Their middle and high schools years are such a formative period in their development. We can help them form the professional skills now that will serve them the rest of their lives.