hard_or_soft_skills

Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills: What Do Employers Want?

In the 2004 film “Napoleon Dynamite,” the titular character lamented that he couldn’t get a girlfriend. “I don’t even have any good skills. You know like nunchuck skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills. Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills!”

Employers may not be clamoring for nunchuck skills, but they also want people with skills. But which skills? Some skills depend on the specific job available; however, others translate across jobs, companies, and fields of work. So when it comes to hard skills vs. soft skills, what do employers want? To be attractive to employers, candidates need a mix of hard skills — those that apply to the job at hand — and soft skills — those that help in any job.

What are hard skills?

Hard skills are job-specific abilities that are typically taught through formal education, training programs, or on-the-job instruction. Hard skills tend to be more easily measured than soft skills. People can sometimes earn degrees or certifications for hard skills. Examples of hard skills include the following:

  • Driving a commercial vehicle
  • Using Microsoft Excel
  • Speaking a second language
  • Plumbing
  • Accounting
  • Statistical analysis
  • Computer programming

The importance of hard skills is self-evident. Without hard skills, an employee cannot perform a job requiring those skills. No matter how strong an accountant’s soft skills are, if he or she cannot produce a balance sheet, that person is doomed to fail.

What are soft skills?

In many cases, soft skills are often what people refer to as “people skills.” An employee’s soft skills determine how well they will work with managers, peers, subordinates, and customers. Here are some soft skills examples:

  • Problem-solving
  • Communication
  • Empathy
  • Leadership
  • Teamwork
  • Patience
  • Kindness

Soft skills play an enormous role in how well an employee performs on the job. When an employee meets the minimum threshold for hard skills, that employee’s soft skills can turn that employee into a star. For instance, an employee with tremendous work ethic and the ability to recognize his or her own professional development needs will improve on the hard skills over time.

Which skills are more important?

According to a 2018 LinkedIn study, 57% of business leaders believe soft skills are more important than hard skills. The 2,000 business leaders surveyed prioritized the soft skills of leadership, communication, collaboration, and time management. But again, both types of skills are important.

Lacking in either hard skills or soft skills can be detrimental to a person’s career. An employee with strong hard skills and weak soft skills can produce high-quality work in isolation; however, this person should have minimal interaction with co-workers and no interaction with customers. With many jobs, this sort of managing around an employee’s weakness simply is not possible.

The opposite situation where an employee has weak hard skills and strong soft skills presents an untenable arrangement as well. The employee gets along great with just about everyone, but the quality of work is insufficient. In fact, the employee may be able to cover up his or her own incompetence through display of outstanding soft skills. But this charade cannot last forever, and companies find out the employee is a bad hire.

How should employers emphasize soft skills in hiring?

Employers often fall into the trap of overemphasizing hard skills and neglecting soft skills. They get so focused on hiring the computer programmer with 10 years of experience they weed out computer programmers with slightly less experience yet a demonstrated ability to foster team cohesion.

When it comes to hiring for soft skills, employers should follow these tips:

  1. Outline in the job posting the soft skills that will help make a candidate successful in the job.
  2. Include interview questions that reveal a candidate’s history of demonstrating important soft skills.
  3. Use a recruiting firm familiar with the company’s industry. These recruiters should be able to help think through which soft skills are important.

Once you have employees in place with the soft skills you value most, you are well on your way to creating and maintaining an organizational culture that aligns with your company’s values and goals. Your employees will move the organization in ways you may have never thought possible.


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