“Why are Soft Skills so Hard?”

For years (maybe even decades?) at all levels in the field of workforce development, from practitioner to system leader, from vendor to funder, from direct client facing to policy wonk, we have discussed the need for better soft skills among the job seeking customers we serve. We even toyed with naming these skills something else for a while since the moniker itself isn’t particularly descriptive. For a short time, some in the field called them “essential employability skills,” not exactly a catchy title. So, for better or worse, it seems that we are back to the term “soft skills.” In fact, I have noticed that even the employer community with whom we engage to supply talent are now easily and regularly referring to soft skills as well. Employers who are hiring know what they are and seem perpetually frustrated that the workforce development system can’t consistently supply a talent pipeline possessing these soft skills.

What exactly are these soft skills anyway and why are they so hard to find? Who is responsible for teaching or instilling these skills that seem so real and basic and yet continue to be the Holy Grail for some employers seeking to fill their talent needs?

While everyone’s definition of soft skills varies, a working definition is likely to include:

  • A thirst for knowledge: keen curiosity and a willingness to learn
  • Team mentality: the awareness of the need for a “tribe”
  • Flexibility and commitment: being able to both anticipate and adapt
  • Project management: simply put, being organized and timely
  • Self-awareness: having a clear understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses
  • Communication skills: the ability to not only succinctly share one’s thoughts and ideas with others, but to also listen with intent

Interestingly, some employers are simply summing up soft skills in two words: Fast thinking. While that doesn’t exactly capture EVERY soft skill necessary, it does show a 21st century trend toward problem solving, effective communication, leadership and willingness to keep learning new skills.

The workforce development system has a distinct and important role to play here: our local boards and regional organizations and service delivery organizations can add value by tracking employer trends, listening closely to business and industry sector needs and responding with nimbleness and speed to provide new training solutions. With every training developed, it is critical to factor in the soft skill component and—in working with our training providers—to push them to do the same. Soft skills are no longer a “nice to have” for job seekers, they are vital skills needed by everyone whether they are looking for a career in customer service or manufacturing.

By partnering together, workforce boards, service providers and businesses can more consistently develop the talent pipelines that deliver candidates that not only have the technical skills needed by industry, but also possess the soft skills making them the well-rounded candidates needed to propel businesses forward.

Marlena Sessions is a workforce development professional who has dedicated her career to creating self-sufficiency via careers for all people. She is the Vice-President for Public and Private Partnerships for Grant Associates, a national workforce development company that has operated nearly 80 different workforce programs in communities of all sizes.