Almost everyone has access to (job-specific) knowledge via the Internet, so in many professions it is no longer sufficient to have extensive specialist knowledge. Instead, the importance of soft skills and experience in applying specialist knowledge is increasing in many areas. Thus, to be competitive in today’s work environment, different skills are required than they were a few years ago. Many employers are confronted with a dynamic environment and are looking for employees who, with the help of suitable soft skills, are able to promote the adaptability and flexibility of the organization. This raises the question of whether soft skills will be more important than job-specific hard skills in the future. This post will look at what is meant by soft skills, why they are relevant in everyday working life, and whether it is realistic to expect them to replace hard skills.
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Even when looking at the various definitions of the term soft skills, it is noticeable that they differ significantly in type and scope. While some definitions see soft skills more as specific abilities, others see them more as individual character traits. In the Cambridge Dictionary, for example, soft skills are defined as
“people’s abilities to communicate with each other and work well together”¹
whereas, according to the definition on Investopedia, they are referred to as
“character traits and interpersonal skills that characterize a person’s relationships with other people”.²
However, there is generally agreement that soft skills, unlike hard skills, are not specific to a particular occupation, but can be used in a variety of ways and across different areas. It should be taken into account, however, that skills which are considered soft skills in one occupational field may be hard skills in another.
The increasing complexity of the work environment means that personnel selection procedures and hiring criteria are constantly changing. In a dynamic environment, human capital is one of the most important assets for many organizations. The shift towards smaller, largely autonomous teams enables organizations to act more flexibly and increases their adaptability. At the same time, this trend is also changing the requirements profile of many employees. They are increasingly involved in important decision-making processes and assume leadership responsibilities within their teams. As a result of this change, above-average specialist knowledge is no longer enough to move up the career ladder. New skills such as good communication skills, team-oriented working, time management and self-discipline are therefore becoming increasingly important. People in (academic) training who want to improve their chances on the job market should therefore be aware of the importance of these soft skills and invest in developing the desired competencies at an early stage.³
Employees can benefit in different ways if they have relevant soft skills. On the one hand, they distinguish themselves from their competitors already in the selection process, for example, if they can market themselves better due to their communication skills. On the other hand, they create an incentive for employers by requiring a shorter learning phase than other applicants due to their leadership qualities and solution-oriented behavior. Even though the advantages of soft skills are well known on both the employer’s and the employee’s side, they are not yet sufficiently developed in many economies. This applies not only to developing countries, but also to leading industrial nations. Particularly in the fields of science and engineering, there is still a considerable lack of the relevant skills in some areas. Even in these more technical sectors, the requirements for new employees are changing. In our information society, where everyone has access to specific knowledge, critical thinking and problem-solving capabilities are particularly important.⁴
However, the focus on soft skills can only be promising if there are no discrepancies between the assessments of employees and people in (academic) training and those of employers. In order to ensure this, a constant exchange between the two sides seems to make sense. The curricula of the various educational institutions are already extensive enough and should not be expanded unnecessarily. An exchange between learners and employers would allow the next generation of employees to focus on the desired key competencies. Another way to promote the acquisition of soft skills would be to change the way knowledge is taught. Educational institutions could also use a change in methods to make learning more self-directed and promote skills such as teamwork, communication and independent work. Such a change can also be technology-based, and students in particular have already had to learn in recent semesters how digital technologies can support independent learning due to the pandemic. But even if the teaching of soft skills were to become a central component of education, it can be assumed that the necessary acquisition of such competencies will still require a large portion of individual initiative and self-discipline in the future. Family and acquaintances are also needed here, as they can have a positive influence on the success of the individual.
It is not only the changing hiring criteria of organizations looking for new employees that are increasing the importance of soft skills for the career success of individuals. Macroeconomic changes in the working world, with the shift toward a service-oriented environment, are also having an impact. The very nature of services places new demands on the human capital of organizations, as these are often more individualized and less standardized than products. The resulting adaptability that is required, together with the ability to acquire new skills and work in a solution-oriented manner, is shaping the new profile of requirements for employees of the next generation. However, it is also important to emphasize at this point that, in particular, an adjustment of one’s own character and the associated individual behavior will not be accomplished overnight. Moreover, there will always be professions in which hard skills are indispensable and clearly more important than soft skills. Taking this into account, one may nevertheless ask the question on which skills educational institutions should focus. It could be argued, for example, that individuals who rely on certain hard skills in their careers could also benefit from having the basic soft skills. It is conceivable that acquiring expertise is easier if adequate soft skills are already in place to facilitate learning. From this perspective, it could make sense to restructure the public education system in such a way that the focus is first on relevant soft skills before the required job-specific knowledge is taught.
It is undisputed that the requirements facing the next generation of employees are constantly changing. Currently, employers are placing increasing emphasis on employees having relevant soft skills such as good communication skills, team-oriented work, time management and self-discipline. Only those who have the relevant competencies have a good chance of a successful career in the long term. At the same time, however, it must be emphasized that there are professions that cannot be practiced without sufficient hard skills. A good balance between the two sets of skills currently seems desirable, and if soft skills are not sufficiently promoted within the framework of public education paths, individuals should take the initiative early on and start investing in the acquisition of the relevant skills. The methods used to do this are, of course, dependent on individual preferences and are left up to each person.
¹ Cambridge Dictionary. N.d. “SOFT SKILLS | definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary.” Cambridge Dictionary. Accessed July 19, 2021.
² Kenton, Will (Reviewed by David Kindness). 2021. “Soft Skills”. Investopedia. Accessed July 19, 2021.
³ Majid, S., Liming, Z., Tong, S., & Raihana, S. (2012). Importance of soft skills for education and career success. International Journal for Cross-Disciplinary Subjects in Education, 2(2), 1037-1042.
⁴ Schulz, B. (2008). The importance of soft skills: Education beyond academic knowledge. Journal of Language and Communication. 146-154.