Brian Underwood: Employers looking for softies to strengthen the workforce
If talk around the water cooler is that the boss has gone soft, she probably has, and she’s right there with a growing number of managers who are becoming “softies.”
In a competitive job market, including those where artificial intelligence and automation are becoming more prevalent, the divider for many companies and hiring managers is the presence of heightened soft skills in the candidates they interview.
Generally speaking, soft skills are defined as the human skills needed to be groomed for success, irrespective of the job or industry. Commonly, they include, but are not limited to, such things as teamwork, leadership, collaboration, written and interpersonal communication skills, creativity, and person-to-person service. And believe it or not, there’s a shortage in today’s talent pool.
According to LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends research, a study involving 5,165 talent and hiring managers analyzing job and hiring data of millions of people, 91 percent of companies responded that employees holding soft skills is a critically important issue, and 80 percent of companies cited that they are struggling to find better soft skills in the market.
For the optimist, scarcity creates opportunity, and with statistics like these, high school and college students should be looking for every chance to learn and polish these crucial skills, regardless of one’s career ambition. And some young people are aware of this.
A December 2018, Washington Post article referenced the hand-in-glove relationship between soft skills blended with strong work ethic for aspiring professionals. Interestingly, it also cited the concurrence that a handful of world economic leaders and a recent survey of teens had on this issue.
The article pointed to a survey of 1,300 teens conducted by Civic and Hart Research for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, sponsored by The Allstate Foundation. It found that “a majority of both current and recent high school students say that going to a school that focuses on developing social and emotional learning (SEL) skills would: help improve student/ teacher and peer relationships, reduce bullying, help them learn academic material and real-world skills, prepare them for college and jobs/careers and prepare them to give back to their communities.”
The Post article went on to state that of sixteen soft skills, or SEL skills, identified by the World Economic Forum as important for the 21st century, 12 were soft skills. These include managing people and coordinating with others.
A small company by the name of Google has also noticed the vital nature of these skills in the workforce and comprehensively studied it in-house. And it’s a pretty big house.
“They found that their best teams weren’t the ones full of top scientists. Instead, their highest performing teams were interdisciplinary groups that benefited heavily from employees who brought strong soft skills to the collaborative process,” Anant Agarwal, a contributing writer for Forbes, reported in its Oct. 2, 2018 issue.
“Further research revealed that important predictors of success within Google were skills like good communication, insights about others, and empathetic leadership.”
So, when the rubber meets the road, how do human resource officers and staffing firms prioritize all theses skills? Going soft can be hard if one doesn’t know where to begin. Students as young as junior high would do well to consider starting with four particularly important skills shared by two leading experts in the human resources arena.
A preeminent source on this subject is Johnny C. Taylor Jr., who is the CEO for the Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest human resources society. In a May 7, Q & A done for USA Today, Taylor commented on the need for young professionals coming up to have better communication skills.
“Communication skills are among the top abilities missing in workers today,” Taylor said. “While this skill gap can be seen in other generations, it is a real concern for those now entering the workforce.
“Business leaders I’ve talked to say that, with the widespread use of social media and texting, members of younger generations seem to be losing the ability to converse with others and are adopting the language of abbreviations and acronyms – ‘text speak.’
“Text speak leads to poor grammar, spelling and punctuation, as well as the use of casual phrases not appropriate in a professional setting. Some younger workers don’t use or understand formal business language.”
I have seen first-hand this decline having worked with young people for almost 35 years, and I echo Taylor’s added comments that, “we can’t spend enough time teaching our children the elements of good writing and public speaking.”
Jan Bruce, another contributing writer for Forbes on human resources, and the CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, reported on Deloitte’s 2016 Global Human Capital Trends report (Oct. 3, 2017) that cited how executives now consider polished soft skills to be important to “fostering employee retention, improving leadership, and building a meaningful culture.”
Adding to Taylor’s call for employees with better communicators, Bruce’s article speaks to the specific need for employees who are also adept at problem solving, who have emotional control, and a strong sense of purpose.
“The ability to get into ‘problem-solving mode’ and stay in it for long periods of time — in other words, persist until a problem is solved instead of disengaging and giving up — is key to dealing with the inevitable challenges that come with any role more efficiently and effectively,” Bruce said.
Staying poised and in control when difficult situations arise is a lifelong journey. We’re all flawed and prone to have moments of frustration bubble up, but parents who intentionally teach, model, and hold their children accountable for emotional control from a young age will not only help them become valuable citizens, but also invaluable colleagues and employees.
“Getting control of our emotions is the single most important soft skill we can learn,” Bruce asserts. “In fact, there’s a high correlation between emotion regulation and our ability to manage our stress and stay productive under pressure…
“I teach leaders and managers how to spot these emotions in their team and coach them to return to calm and focus. Getting a handle on emotion control can be a game changer.”
Finally, Bruce speaks to purpose, or “feeling connected to a mission beyond ourselves and our own self-interest works as a wellspring to carry leaders and their teams through tough times, which invariably happen at work.”
A wonderful book that speaks directly to this and is on my “must read list” for all young people, at least, is The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. One of the top non-fiction best sellers of all-time with over 34 million copies sold, the Purpose Driven Life takes a values-based approach to why we’re here, and how we use our gifts and talents for a great purpose.
In general, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Mind-boggling advances in AI, STEM, and lots of other techy acronyms can make one’s head spin. And yet, common sense, real-world interpersonal skills taught through the ages continue actually rule the day, and the workforce.
“The bottom line is this: we are working in a more dynamic, contingent, people-oriented world,” says Josh Bersin, a global industry analyst who studies corporate HR, talent, leadership, recruitment, and is the founder of Bersin by Deloitte.
“While technology is getting more pervasive, it’s the human skills that matter.”
So, go soft, or stay home.
Brian Underwood is director of School Development for Sierra Lutheran High School.