The Hard Facts About ‘Soft Skills’…

Recently, I happened across a newspaper article titled ‘Top 5 most in-demand soft skills.’ My instinct was to snub the column as although not new to the term, my blasé interpretation of ‘soft skills’ gave them little significance. However, I immediately reconsidered my rebuttal. Perhaps my ignorance on this subject required deeper questioning rather than overlooking? I returned to the original piece with a fresh pair of eyes and my quest for soft skill related knowledge was underway…

First and foremost, what precisely were ‘soft skills’ and what made them soft? Inevitably, my mind had also raced to the existence of their presupposed nemesis, ‘hard skills’ and why were they hard? Were there any medium, firm, supple or even spongy skills that were either in-demand or highly unpopular? It turns out the term ‘soft skills’ surfaced in the US Military, somewhere between 1968 and 1972. The military had successfully trained troops to use machinery, but still observed a difference between group performance. They coined the term ‘soft skills’ to define the skills that were variables in achievement, that didn’t involve interaction with machines. Nowadays, soft skills have taken on a broader meaning. The online Cambridge Dictionary simply describes soft skills as ‘people’s abilities to communicate with each other and work well together’. Wikipedia provides a more enlightening definition: ‘skills which are desirable in all professions’ and also shared the contrast with hard skills, which were ‘specific to individual professions.’

Whether opting for Cambridge or Wikipedia’s take, it seems to me that ‘soft skills’ could be in need of a re-brand. After nearly dismissing the article, because of my own negative preconceptions of the term, further investigation revealed how remarkably important they all seemed! Creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and emotional intelligence are clearly desirable, and also qualities that many aspire to equip themselves with. Yet, by calling them ‘soft’, these skills appear fluffy and we devalue their importance, especially when considering that, according to the University of Michigan, companies who focus recruitment on soft skills develop higher levels of productivity. Indeed, according to LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends, 92% of managers agreed that soft skills are just as important, or more important than hard skills.

One of the key factors driving this increased value of soft skills in the jobs market is technological disruption, specifically the exponential growth of robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Contrary to popular opinion, these remarkable technologies are not replacing existing occupations, rather they are superseding specific tasks – or to put it another way, ‘hard skills’. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has driven many organisations and businesses to the virtual world to ensure operations continue despite isolations and lockdowns, super-charging the change process.

For example, customer service departments increasingly use chatbots and automated messaging solutions. Whilst in HR, automation is transforming hiring, onboarding and retention. Common tasks are rapidly being replaced by cost-effective automated alternatives that leave professionals with more freedom to focus on creativity, collaboration and the exploration of innovative ideas. In other words, because they cannot be substituted by technology, demand for ‘soft skills’ are on the rise. However, according to Forbes, there is an issue with supply; 54% of British businesses claim soft skills are ‘difficult’ to find in candidates, whilst 51% of those surveyed admitted this was damaging business growth.

All this leads to a glaring quandary for us educators. As employers increasingly search for attributes such as resilience, teamwork and empathy, modern UK school curricula tend to focus on teaching hard skills such as mathematics, writing, programming, reading and design. As a direct result of this paradox, the Education Commission estimates that by 2030 over half of the world’s young people will not possess all the necessary skills to participate in the emerging global workforce.

So, what can schools do to ensure their pupils develop the skills that will be a prerequisite of tomorrow’s workplace, whilst still ensuring they attain the best possible grades in GCSE and A-Level examinations? A global rebrand of the ‘soft skills’ misnomer is, sadly, unlikely. However, developing a comprehensive PSHE programme has proved a useful starting point at RGS Worcester. Pupils build resilience, learn to navigate the treacherous social media landscape, understand and look after mental health and learn to develop positive relationships. Soft skills also have a place in our specific curriculum subjects, working not instead of, but in conjunction with, the acquisition of hard skills. Teachers create activities that put an emphasis on group work, time management and peer-on-peer collaboration.  Our Digital Learning Programme provides exposure to digital workflows, real-time communication and facilitates the attainment of skills such as independent research, and presentation packages. Furthermore, a rich co-curricular programme including activities such as debating, the Duke of Edinburgh Award and the Combined Cadet Force mean RGS Worcester pupils naturally develop teamwork, emotional intelligence and empathy. There are also a growing number of digital tools that teachers utilise to help sustain and develop key competencies; Barclays Life Skills, the Inspiring Digital Enterprise Award, Farming STEMterprise are to name but a few.

Ultimately though, the UK education system remains focused on exams and grades. Routine assessment of self-awareness, self-control and empathy is still a very long way off. However, it is important to remember that investing time to teach and understand soft skills will not be lost, far from it. Those who are best armed with strong soft skills, alongside top grades, are much more likely to achieve in the ever changing, complex and challenging world into which they will soon be searching for employment.

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