For some, it’s easy to overlook the realm of “soft skills.” (In case you’re unaware, soft skills are, according to LinkedIn, related to “cognitive ability, workplace behaviors, and emotional intelligence”—qualities linked to personality and intuition). Hard skills like “cloud computing” or “forklift operation” seem more concrete, easier to pin down, than seemingly subjective, ubiquitous soft skills like “adaptability” or “critical thinking.” And yet a strong set of soft skills are needed across job sectors—they’re especially important for jobs involving public service, teamwork, ideas, etc. A US Chamber Foundation study finds that “the importance of these skills is widely acknowledged, and yet they are not taught with consistency or given prioritization.” Thus, in a competitive job market, when all applicants will have the right hard-skill boxes checked (and then some), demonstratable soft skills can make all the difference. They show, among other things, that you’re not simply a work machine but a well-rounded person; in fact, soft skills are demanded more than ever because they cannot be reproduced by the tech and AI that are increasingly central to many sectors. “Demonstratable” is the keyword here: it’s easy to ream off your soft skills like they’re favourite desserts, but if you write, for example, of your “excellent communication skills,” make sure your writing and interviews are perfect(ish)!
So, what soft skills do employers look for? A quick search will bring to you to a surplus of results pertaining to a surplus of sectors, so I’ll focus on a list with all-around appeal. Every year, LinkedIn gathers employers’ most sought-after skills from their platform. The top soft skills for 2021 include adaptability, collaboration, creativity, emotional intelligence, and persuasion. The top three missing soft skill areas are:
- Problem-solving, critical thinking, innovation, and creativity
- Ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity
The language here—“innovation,” “emotional intelligence,” “creativity”—is broad, somewhat ambiguous, and adaptable to a variety of circumstances. It’s difficult to develop skills when there’s no standard, definitive model to mimic. There’s no comprehensive “creativity certificate”; creativity for a journal editor looks different than creativity for a data entry assistant. Knowing how these soft skills translate into your field may be key to your education. Luckily, soft skills overlap. “Critical thinking” is needed to “deal with complexity and ambiguity.” “Persuasion” needs “communication.” “Collaboration” needs “emotional intelligence.” Personally, I find it helpful to think of all soft skills as different sides to the same thing: responding to my environment in constructive, meaningful ways. This holistic approach relieves the stress of treating soft skills like a to-do list. (“Now that I’ve mastered ‘adaptability,’ I can finally move on to ‘collaboration.’’) I know that when I “problem-solve” by finding a different, more effective teaching method for a particular student, I’m also learning how to adapt, communicate, empathize, etc.
So while the broadness of soft skills can be intimidating, it also has a plus side: you can develop soft skill in all areas of life. You can practice “self-control” and “conflict resolution” on the soccer field, at a party, at home. Modern science suggests that much of our behaviour derives from unconscious habit. Many pre-moderns thought so too. Aristotle, for instance, believed that we become virtuous though practice; the more we decide to, say, show compassion or “put ourselves in someone else’s shoes,” the more we’ll do it consistently and consciously, even under pressure when it’s easy to talk ourselves out of virtuous behaviour. It’s like learning guitar chords: at first, you must slowly and painfully press your fingers in the right position, but after doing these hundreds of times, you move smoothly from chord to chord just by “feel,” without looking. Then you’ll be able to perform under the pressure of a large audience. The same goes for soft skills. In elementary school, I was that kid who ran away crying amid my class presentation. As an adult, I’ve tried to jump on any chance at public speaking, despite the true torture it gives me. Why? Because it’s helped me adequately teach a class or undergo a job interview when, only years earlier, my ability to speak under any pressure was barely passable.
“Practice makes perfect” may be cliché. Still, if you’re like me, it’s easy to overlook intentionally practicing something like “listening skills,” which, in the end, may be essential for that dream job—or life in general!