Spring 2024

Soft skills in a hard skills world

In a world that places so much emphasis on credentials, it is about time that skills like collaboration got a little more recognition. You can be ‘credentialed’ to the max, but it means little if your people skills are next to non-existent.

This is the sentiment echoed by many employers today. In fact, a recent survey found that 77 percent of businesses were willing to hire employees based on their soft skills (their ability to deal with others) over their hard skills (job specific tasks). This isn’t really a new development. For some reason, society made the shift to an emphasis on hard skills and relegated soft skills to a second tier. However, an over one-hundred-year-old Harvard University study (published in 1918) was recently unearthed that concluded much the same thing that we are seeing today: that 85 percent of job success comes from soft skills with the remaining 15 percent coming from hard skills like technical aptitude and knowledge. It looks like the pendulum is starting to swing back to the 1918 perspective.

Guidance counselling and the hard/soft skill conundrum

Guidance counsellors are no stranger to this reality. It is not unusual for a student to make an appointment with their counsellor and, while their grades seem somewhat average, the counsellor knows that the student is going to do just fine when it comes to finding a career. The reason: they have the soft skills to make their way in the world and succeed in life. While they might struggle a bit to get a credential or two, their employability will be a non-issue because they are proficient in things like communication, problem solving and collaboration.

Counsellors also encounter certain students who are adept at completing schoolwork and achieving high grades, but their interpersonal skills are so lacking that they worry about how these students will function socially and in the workplace. In other words, their hard skills are excellent, but their soft skills need a considerable amount of work.

Hard skills v. soft skills

Thus far, a lot of discussion has been spent on the terms hard and soft skills, but maybe we should press pause and define these terms more specifically. Hard skills are the sum total of all the knowledge, information, and credentials that allow a person to compete for and conduct themselves in a certain setting. For example, an engineer goes about taking science courses in high school to get into a university program, eventually earning a degree in engineering and becoming an engineer. The engineer can then use their ‘hard skills’ to perform the job and take part in the career they have long trained to do.

Soft skills are the interpersonal behaviours that allow a person to work with others and bring harmony to the workplace. They involve an awareness of self and others that make a career (and life!) run more smoothly. While hard skills can be measured objectively on a performance appraisal, soft skills are more difficult to measure because they are more subjective. However, if a person’s (or organization’s) soft skills are strong, a valuable worker and a cohesive work environment is clear for everyone to see. Essentially, soft skills are the cornerstone of job satisfaction.

Top soft skills for students

It would certainly be naïve to ignore hard skills in favour of soft skills—after all, students need to earn the grades to get into programs that allow them to pursue their future goals. However, counsellors can (and often do) try to demonstrate to students that certain skills go beyond credentials and are highly valued both scholastically and in the workforce. Here is a list of the top soft skills identified by experts:

Communication – the act of speaking, writing, listening, and gesturing to demonstrate understanding and empathy. A good communicator is an active listener, a clear speaker, and employs both verbal and non-verbal cues that send a message in a given situation. Good communicators stay on message when speaking, show attentiveness, and provide feedback after listening to someone’s perspective. Communication requires reflection and introspection to show that a person understands what is being communicated and that they know what needs to be said, written or demonstrated in order to be understood.

Teamwork – the ability to work with people by recognizing one’s own gifts and the gifts of others. Teamworking skills include collaboration, networking, and inclusiveness. A true team player shares responsibility and knows how and when to contribute. They are also skilled at negotiating and compromising.

Problem solving – the ability to identify issues, confront obstacles, and employ solution-based strategies when dealing with challenging situations. Life is filled with challenges that require problem solving. Students need to be given opportunities to brainstorm, employ creativity, and see the merits in using flexibility and adaptability when it comes to academic, social, familial and, eventually, work-related problems. A necessary part of problem solving is the implementation of a plan to address the problem.

Critical thinking – this soft skill is closely related to problem solving and involves sharpening existing skills by employing things like analysis and discernment. A critical thinker makes informed decisions, implements plans, deals with challenges, and questions the way thing’s function.

Interpersonal interaction – the method and means by which a person interacts with others. Someone with strong interpersonal skills demonstrates emotional intelligence. In other words, they know how and when to demonstrate emotion and feelings in a variety of situations. They are also adept at conflict management, negotiation, and compromise. They have a sense of self-awareness, promote active listening, work well with others, and recognize the strengths and gifts of the people around them.

Time management – the ability to organize and prioritize tasks in a timely and efficient manner. This is a critical—and often under-rated—soft skill. The ability to prioritize tasks, make a plan, meet goals, and hit a deadline are hugely important, not only for students, but for someone in an established career.

Self-confidence – a sense of knowing one’s competencies and abilities. A person with self-confidence knows their strengths and weaknesses, shows resiliency when things get difficult, works independently when necessary, and accepts when they have given as much as they can.

Work ethic – the measure of one’s attitude, dependability, reliability, professionalism, enthusiasm, and attention to detail when it comes to the completion of tasks. A strong work ethic is vital for successful students and for career-oriented individuals.

The other soft skill

When someone is adept at a number of soft skills, they are often thought to possess what we will call the other soft skill: leadership. Not everyone is a leader but, if one were to describe the best leaders they have ever encountered, odds are they would describe someone who possesses many of the skills explained above. Who wouldn’t want to work with a leader who communicates effectively, functions well in team situations, possesses strong problem solving and critical thinking skills, knows how to manage their time, and treats people with dignity and respect? Leadership is often the soft skill that many people aspire to. However, not everyone wants to lead, and this is why we give it special mention on its own.

How guidance counsellors can help

Guidance counsellors are natural promoters of soft skills. They see the whole student and, when things are challenging, they will often intuitively encourage students to tap into or develop their soft skills. A quick glance at the list of soft skills discussed will indicate a great deal of cross over from one skill to the next. In other words, something like active listening or creativity might emerge in any number of soft skill categories. One thing a guidance counsellor can do is employ a little Socrates by encouraging students to know thyself. Introspection leads to self-knowledge which, in turn, leads to a more confident and competent experience in the outside world. Counsellors can help students build their sense of self by emphasizing soft skills so that they can, in turn, focus on the hard skills that will open doors to their future plans.

The other thing a counsellor can do is model soft skills by being a good communicator (with a special emphasis on active listening) and by taking a solution-based approach to problems. Let students see your willingness to be a team player by asking colleagues for answers to questions you might not be able to answer. If a student can see that a counsellor has the humility to express and demonstrate their soft skills, they will see the value of doing the same.

Back to the future

The 1918 Harvard study came at a time when technology was advancing at a blinding rate. War time innovation transformed the world and, in order for people to function effectively, they needed to work with others to both survive the transformation and enhance the advancement of society.

We are facing the same challenge today. Technology is evolving at a dizzying pace and many of our students are caught in the whirlwind. It is soft skills—the ability to work with others in a balanced and harmonious way—that stand to help our students most. So next time a student is sitting across from you perplexed by the hard skills they need to develop to make the grade or to get into a certain program, remind them that their soft skills will not only improve their sense of personal satisfaction, but will also give them the self-confidence they will need to meet their goals.

By: Sean Dolan