Soft skills will make or break your career

On World Youth Skills Day, IOE Adviser Akustina Morni explains that underrated soft skills are the foundation for a successful career in the next generation of jobs.

Peggy Klaus, author of The Hard Truth about Soft Skills, has a point: soft skills get little respect.

From the International Labour Organization to the International Monetary Fund and beyond, there are no shortage of studies on the Future of Work and its impact on work, employment and on society. Quite often their focus is on how reskilling, upskilling and lifelong learning can mitigate the negative effects and challenges of the future of work. However, the rising importance of soft skills is completely absent from these assessments.

What are soft skills? How are they different to hard skills? References to these types of skills varies. Some refer to them as foundational skills, technical skills, human skills, and many others. Can this cause some confusion? Definitely. Despite these different terminologies though, let’s refer to them as soft skills and hard skills.

Early references to soft skills go back to the 1970s which included a definition in the US Army, where a soldier would need hard skills to read a map, and soft skills to make a decision after reading the map. Therefore, both hard skills and soft skills are needed to effectively execute a task or job.

Soft skills such as critical thinking, communication and complex problem solving are underrated. According to LinkedIn data, there are at least 50,000 professional skills in the world. Out of all of these, the top 5 soft skills companies are looking for the most in 2019 are:

  • Creativity
  • Persuasion
  • Collaboration
  • Adaptability
  • Time management

.. in this order.

And interestingly, the skills needed by employers do not remain static. Soft skills are constantly evolving, as demonstrated in the below chart, comparing the skills needed in 1972 and the required skills anticipated (by WEF) for 2020:

The recently published joint study by the International Organisation of Employers and the International Labour Organization surveyed 500 companies globally on the future of skills. We found that employers are looking for quite different skills now in new recruits compared to 3 years ago – 70% (Brazil), 66% (India), 65% (Germany) and 61% (USA).

But why should we care about soft skills?

According to the World Bank report, machines replace workers most easily when it comes to routine tasks that are codifiable. If this is theoretically true, then soft skills are the workers’ ‘protection’ against the risk of losing jobs. Why? Because machines have yet to codify complex, human, soft skills.

That’s not the only reason why we should care about soft skills. Two out of three children who are in primary school today will work in a new job type that does not exist yet. It makes more sense, strategically, to prepare future generations with strong soft skills as it is impossible now, or at any stage, to forecast or predict the kind of hard skills needed in the immediate or long-term future.

Another reason why we should care is that the skills gap is widening. The IOE/ILO survey found that it is becoming harder for companies to recruit people with the skills needed – 63% of Malaysian companies are struggling to hire people with the skills need, in Bolivia 60% of companies are struggling, some 50% are in South Africa and 47% in China.

The lack of relevant skills for the world of work is already creating hiring problems even at entry-level positions (40% of employers noted lack of skills as the main reason). We don’t need more data to be convinced that this is a big problem. And it is a problem for all for us. Employers. Workers. Governments. Therefore, we all should care about developing and strengthening soft skills.

In my next blog, I explain how we can pursue this expansion.

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