Soft Skills Are the Future – So Isn’t It Time We Gave Them a Better Name?
I have never understood the term ‘soft skills.’ It seems such an inappropriate way to describe something so important. After all, we’re talking about those critical skills that allow us to work together effectively – the ability to communicate, listen and empathize – not to mention the ability to solve problems, make decisions, and think creatively. Why are these skills considered ‘soft’?
It sounds even worse when used alongside ‘hard skills,’ i.e. those skills we acquire through formal training and education – the ability to read, write, code, design, use technology, and so on. Whether intentionally or not, the use of the words ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ when categorizing skills suggests that the former are essential, while the latter is an optional extra.
This is reflected in recruitment, where most job descriptions focus primarily on hard skills. The same goes for learning and development. I’ve sat through countless training sessions on new software, products, or policies, but I’ve never received any professional guidance on how to communicate better, for example.
Why is this? One reason is that soft skills can’t be measured and demonstrated in the same way as hard skills. There’s no certificate that proves an ability to think critically, nor is there a degree course in emotional intelligence. In most jobs, however, the main reason is that soft skills simply aren’t considered as important. But this is about to change.
Soft skills – the hard skills of the future
The very nature of hard skills – the fact they are measurable, knowledge-based, and follow logical or repetitive patterns – makes them a prime candidate for automation. It may be hard to believe, but there are already machines capable of writing music, news stories, novels, and even computer code. In the coming years, machines may be able to perform any hard skill as well as us humans can – only much faster.
This has led many to fear for the future of humans in the workplace. But fear not – there are some skills that are notoriously difficult to automate. You guessed it: soft skills. Building a machine that can code is one thing, but try building one that can empathize, think creatively, understand the nuance of human interaction, and apply critical thinking.
In the future of work, soft skills will be how we differentiate ourselves from the machines. In other words, they’ll be essential. If businesses are to thrive, they’ll need to rethink the way they approach learning and development, with a greater focus on soft skills.
This represents a huge challenge. Unlike hard skills, soft skills aren’t easy to teach. You can’t simply acquire information that makes you a good leader, a clear thinker, or a strong communicator. But that doesn’t mean these skills can’t be nurtured in the workplace.
Improving soft skills takes time and practice. While some people are naturally more blessed when it comes to communication, for example, everyone can improve if given the right support. In many cases, soft skills are about confidence and familiarity – the more people practice them as part of their day-to-day work, the more adept they will become.
Yet many people don’t have an opportunity to practice these skills in a professional context. In most businesses, the decision making, strategizing, and critical thinking is done by a handful of people at the top, while the rest of us perform predictable tasks using hard skills.
In the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, the top skills for 2020 include complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, and judgment and decision making. These are all skills that humans excel at, but not everyone has the opportunity to demonstrate at work. Businesses that empower their staff to improve such skills will thrive in the future of work.
There’s nothing ‘soft’ about soft skills
If these skills are our future, isn’t it time we came up with a better name for them? ‘Soft skills’ sounds so, well, soft. What we need is a name that reflects their importance – something like core skills, essential skills or human skills.
After all, the future of work won’t be about mindless, repetitive tasks – we can leave all that to the machines. It will be about maximizing those interpersonal skills that make us uniquely human.