A recent LinkedIn study found that of 291 hiring managers surveyed, 59% agreed that finding employees with the right soft skills is much more difficult than finding employees with adequate technical skills. They also found that these skills are particularly important, and just as hard to find, in areas such as consumer services, retail and healthcare. A recent Wall Street Journal study supported these findings, adding that 92% of executives felt that soft skills were equally important to technical skills, while 89% cited difficulty in finding candidates with those skills. This revelation has caused a shift in terminology with some now referring to this group of skills as “key skills” or “core skills,” some even calling them “employability skills,” emphasizing their importance.

We find that the majority of hiring managers choose candidates based on technical skills, yet the preponderance of terminations and promotions are based on behavioral attributes related to soft skills. Personal and organizational success, therefore, appears to be directly linked to one’s ability to communicate, work in teams, think critically, be adaptable and possess a high level of emotional intelligence. This holds true across industries as well as across employee levels. As the labor market becomes more competitive, these soft skills are becoming more and more important in finding a job, and even more important in moving up the corporate ladder. 

Some of the most successful companies in the world, such as Southwest Airlines, Disney and Ritz Carlton Hotels, pride themselves on hiring for soft skills and teaching the technical skills on the job. According to a 2015 article in the Harvard Business Review, Southwest Airlines receives a job application every two seconds and hires only 2% of all applicants. What they look for in these applicants are primarily the soft skills. Of course a pilot needs a license or a mechanic needs a certification. But beyond the base technical competence, the candidate that shows the intangibles such as a desire to excel and persevere, an aptitude for innovation, the ability to put others first, show respect to everyone, proactively serve customers, approach life with a passion and joy, and not take oneself too seriously, will get the job. In order to ensure that applicants have these traits, Southwest uses behavioral interviewing and other techniques, while other companies have hired an organizational psychologist and consultants to aid in finding the right candidates with appropriate soft skills. However, most hiring managers agree, finding these types of candidates is getting harder and harder.

A quick review of the LinkedIn study’s top 10 rated soft skills reveals the problem at hand: Skills such as communication, organization, teamwork, critical thinking, adaptability and emotional intelligence aren’t traditionally taught in a college or trade school curriculum. Higher education, with few exceptions, is geared toward the hard skills. Accountants are taught debits and credits, physicians are taught physical exam, biologists are taught anatomy. However, in the corporate world, they are expected to work well in teams, creatively problem solve, communicate effectively and have high levels of emotional intelligence. Higher education is not blind to the fact that they may be doing an excellent job teaching these hard skills while failing when it comes to the soft ones. Some are attempting to alter their curricula, however curricula changes at the university and college level happen at a glacial pace. Some innovative educators who realize the importance of these soft skills both at the college and professional level, are attempting to introduce such skills at the middle and high school levels. However, with the bureaucratic education system in most states, regulation often makes it difficult to do so. Despite growing efforts within both secondary and higher education, a large number of individuals still enter the workforce with a lack of critical skills necessary to be successful in their career, forcing employers to seek consultants and educators to teach and coach these essential skills on the job.

This approach has become extremely popular with organizations both large and small who have created employee, leadership and high potential development programs in-house. These programs are primarily led by outside consultants with years of managerial and leadership experience. The programs are often customized for the organization and teach the soft, core skills that the workforce is lacking, thusly enhancing the productivity of the workforce and the subsequent corporate bottom line. Since candidates with adequate soft skills are becoming harder and harder to find, especially in the new generation entering the workforce, this tactic is rapidly gaining popularity.

Stuart Levine is chairman and CEO, Stuart Levine & Associates, EduLeader LLC. He can be reached at 516-465-0800 or slevine@stuartlevine.com.