Soft Skills—Hard Skills for the Tech Economy

Feb 4, 2019 BY Alex Brown
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The web is awash with think pieces about the skills that business leaders believe are key to success in the high-tech economy. Readers will find the obvious suspects on these lists, like computer programming and other technical skills, but readers might be surprised to find so-called “soft skills” on these lists, too. Cross-cultural competency, emotional intelligence, and a humble mindset stand out as especially important in my experience leading diversity learning programs.

And yet, I find that “soft skills” and the paths to develop them are taken for granted, at best. This is particularly true in the push for college students and mid-career professionals to “upskill” into technical career paths. With the Center for Technology and Workforce Solutions, we can advance the conversation about the soft skills that are critical in our rapidly changing economy. As a first step, we need to understand soft skills as hard skills requiring development and say more about how people can develop their own soft skills.

(Re-) Defining “soft skills”

In trying to define the term “soft skills,” what stands out is that many “soft skills” are in fact very difficult to develop. As HR thought leader Claude Silver has stated, “I’ve never heard of a more debilitating term than ‘soft skills.’ They are hard skills.” Silver’s statement likely rings self-evident to those among us with a technically brilliant coworker who also brilliantly lacks interpersonal awareness.

Moreover, some definitions of soft skills focus on ingrained personality traits and qualities. Instead, I conceive of soft skills as the non-technical patterns, behaviors, and mindsets that enable success. Just as you might master technical skills—like machining, computer programming, or product design—with years of repetition and improvement, learning soft skills requires practice and feedback, too.

Unlike technical skills, however, individuals’ patterns, behaviors, and mindsets might be an afterthought when we consider a complex process leading to a new app or piece of hardware. I find this scandalous because sometimes we make greater gains by focusing on soft skills rather than on technical skills. For example, an intervention to reduce unnecessary C-sections in Boston-area hospitals had almost nothing to do with improving a medical team’s anatomical knowledge or surgical skills. Instead, delivery teams lowered the C-section rate for low-risk, first-time mothers by 10% through a shared focus on clear communication, teamwork and collaboration.

Even as technical skills take the spotlight in our transforming economy, it is important that people do the hard work of developing soft skills, too.

Creating Opportunities to Acquire Soft Skills

If soft skills are actually important hard skills requiring practice, how can people actively learn them? Some readers may have taken these skills for granted as a “natural consequence” of years of experience. Absent intentional reflection and growth, this presumption of soft skill mastery through work experience is fraught with peril.

Cross-cultural competency offers an instructive example. Many readers may recognize the trope of a culturally insensitive coworker who touts their years of experience promoting diversity. The other side of this coin is the cocky coworker who believes they are “woke” and have all the answers. In order to participate in or lead effective conversations about diversity, both of these employees likely need to further develop mindsets like humility, patterns like active listening, and behaviors like asking open-ended questions.

People can luckily develop soft skills through consistent practice and by asking for specific, actionable feedback, as through the situation-behavior-impact method. Forward-looking companies are developing formal learning experiences about soft skills within fuller models of employee development. Thankfully, the bygone days of frontal lecture trainings have given way to interactive workshops and follow-up coaching in corporate settings. Even without a formal learning program, employees can commit to developing soft skills through accountability to trusted mentors, peers, and even direct reports.

Students on technical paths can also hone their soft skills through cross-disciplinary study long before setting foot in a workplace. Discussion-based courses in the humanities and social sciences offer opportunities to practice logical argumentation and clear communication about complex information. Such courses can also nourish a joy for learning, a critical mindset given that 85% of jobs that will exist by 2030 have not yet been invented. With “creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability” atop LinkedIn’s list of most in-demand skills for 2019, there is even a compelling case to be made for the place of the liberal arts in educating future workers.

At a time when soft skills are hard skills that employees, teams, and companies need to succeed, I am excited about CTWS advancing robust conversations about the future of soft skills in our education system and economy more generally.

Interested in learning more about CTWS, contact them!

Alex Brown (Pronouns: he/him/his/himself) is a learning and development professional working in tech in San Francisco. He is the founder of Include DEI and holds a Masters of Arts from Cornell University. Previously he served as the Assistant Director of the Intergroup Dialogue Project at Cornell University.