Hard skills, which are technical skills that can be taught to employees, are critical to success in most positions, but employers often underestimate the value of soft skills, which aren't prioritized like they should be. Even if an employee knows all the hard skills that are required for the job, a lack of soft skills can become a great hindrance that affects job performance and the business as a whole.

What are soft skills?

Soft skills include things like problem solving, social skills, communication, teamwork, a strong work ethic, motivation, etc. They are essentially personality traits that allow a person to thrive in a business environment.

Why are soft skills important?

Soft skills are vital because they allow for the effective carrying out of tasks, especially when they involve the employee interacting with other people. Miscommunication and not working well with others, for example, can create obvious obstacles to productivity.

Why aren't soft skills always prioritized?

You would think the importance of soft skills would be apparent across the board. Yet, they are often overlooked when it comes to prospective hires. One common roadblock is that while executives tend to want employees with soft skills, HR personnel may focus entirely on what a particular position requires at the hard skill level.

Brent Orrell, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has worked in job training and workforce development for over 20 years and has spent a lot of time thinking about "the disconnect between what employers say they want and what our educational and training systems produce." Government and educational systems at all levels, he says, have prioritized science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).1

"In survey after survey—as well as in innumerable conversations with business owners and human resources executives—employers complain first about how workers lack right-brained, social, or 'soft' skills—character, persistence, integrity, professionalism, teamwork, communication, and dependability," he states. "Frustration about this problem runs deep among employers because, in increasingly networked, team-based working environments, the absence of soft skills is a drag on productivity and a human resources headache."

Why aren't younger people trained in soft skills?

It's a commonly held belief that younger generations generally lack soft skills compared to older ones. But why aren't younger people being trained in the soft skills they need?

Forbes contributor Darren Shimkus has an interesting theory: "It’s really because the nature of industry and commerce has moved from huge corporations to small- and medium-sized companies that don’t have the resources to develop comprehensive training programs,” he says. “Traditionally, big companies like McDonald’s® or GE® had so many managers, they had to offer training at all different career stages. Companies today are smaller and growing fast, and they’re focused on building the business, not building leaders."2

How to test potential employees for soft skills

It’s possible to identify job candidates' soft skills by the way they conduct themselves in interviews. Watch their body language and professionalism. Ask if they have been included in any clubs or teams. Formulate interview questions around soft skills you're looking for. Ask them to tell you about a specific stressful situation they've been in and how they handled it. Give them a hypothetical problem and ask how they would go about solving it.

How to encourage/train for soft skills in the workplace

Once you've made the new hire, include in your training requirements ways to stretch their soft skill muscles. Read up on developing an effective training program or hire a consultant who can help. Pair employees with team members who already exhibit great soft skills and help new hires learn from them.

The key is to emphasize soft skills both when you hire and throughout employment. They will prove useful across positions and job tasks, and your company should be a more effective and happier workplace because of it.

1. https://www.aei.org/articles/crossing-the-stem-divide/

2. https://www.forbes.com/sites/darrenshimkus/2018/07/18/dont-go-soft-on-soft-skills-setting-millennials-up-for-management-success/#225f755072aa