The Importance of Soft Skills

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

I just finished reviewing JIST’s second online workshop. The first one we created, Job Search Advantage, is about job-hunting skills. The new one, still in development, is about mastering soft skills.

During a session at last week’s Careers Conference, one participant said he regretted that many people consider soft skills something extra, something nice to have but not essential. He argued that they should be recognized as the most important skills of all.

I agree, and I believe that everyone needs to take stock of his or her soft skills. One important reason is to decide which careers and job openings to pursue. It helps to have a good understanding of your ability with and interest in such work requirements as reading other people’s feelings, being persuasive, accepting criticism, and being supportive. So, for example, a person with both ability and interest in being persuasive might consider a position in sales; someone good at being supportive might consider health care or a team-oriented work environment. Someone who feels inadequate at reading other people’s feelings or just lacks interest in doing so might want to avoid team-oriented work and look for careers or positions where the work is done solo, for example in some mechanical repair jobs.

If you already know what your job target is, you have an entirely different reason to think about your soft skills: to be able to sell yourself as the best person for the job. Nowadays one reason why some jobs are not being sent to a foreign shore is that they depend on a human touch. For example, although some help-desk jobs are being done abroad, many companies are maintaining an American staff to do this work because they find that American workers achieve a better rapport with American customers. These workers need to be able to ask the most effective questions of the people who call and rapidly detect any confusion that may arise. Other jobs that are not in danger of being offshored, such as many health-care jobs, nevertheless need workers who are able to interact well with the public and work well as a team.

It’s not enough to identify the soft skills you have mastered that make you a good job candidate. You need to go further to think of ways to demonstrate your mastery of these skills to the potential employer. The job interview gives you only a very limited opportunity to demonstrate these skills, and you may not even get that far if your resume shows no signs of your soft skills. So you need to indicate your soft skills on your resume and do so in ways that go beyond mere assertions. For example, instead of merely saying that you are skilled at negotiating, you might identify a particular instance of a difficult negotiation you accomplished. You can demonstrate your teamwork skills by giving an example of a collaborative accomplishment. You may think that achieving something as part of a team somehow dilutes your credit, but you can make it count as an achievement for the teamwork skills it shows.

One additional reason to take stock of your soft skills is to recognize which ones you need to work on--and then get started on doing so. As with any skills, with these there is the problem that you can’t get the job without the skills but seemingly can’t get the skills without the job. The solution is to find ways to build the skills in nonwork situations, such as volunteer activities. Volunteer with a community organization to serve on a project that requires you to work with other people. It may help for you to become more active in a group you already belong to, because you’ll be less shy about working with people you already know. As you get involved in projects requiring soft skills, it’s vital that you ask for constructive feedback from your co-workers and accept it without being defensive. Alternatively, you may be able to build these skills in your current job by asking your supervisor for a low-stakes, limited assignment that uses these skills; again, ask for feedback and make use of it to improve your skills.

Soft skills are not really soft when you consider the impact that they can have on your career.


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