“Soft Skills” and Hiring

Graduate job search (web)

Today, many persons earn graduate degrees to change careers or qualify for professional advancement. But should they focus on improving their so-called “soft skills”—critical thinking, effective communication, problem solving—or on developing specific job-related skills such as facility with online publishing applications or SPSS? Just what is the true path to career success?

What CEOs Say They Want

To learn what corporate leaders look for when hiring new employees, Northeastern University recently conducted a survey of American adults and business hiring decision-makers. The results show that Americans have a rather complex view of the relation of higher education to employment.

  • Fully 70% of Americans believe that educational level is the most important factor leading to success in today’s job market.
  • Three-fourths of respondents believe that a college degree is more important today than for their parents’ generation and that it will be even more important for the success of their children.
  • And yet, most respondents believe that colleges are not in tune with today’s job market and do only a fair to poor job of preparing graduates for the workforce.

Regarding the importance of “soft skills” vs. job-specific abilities, business leaders responded as follows:

  • By a 60% to 40% majority, business leaders ranked critical thinking, communication, and problem solving as more important than job-specific skills for new employees.
  • Impressively, 73% of business leaders agreed that

    Being well-rounded with a range of abilities is more important than having industry expertise because job-specific skills can be learned at work.

  • Correlatively, only 27% of business leaders agreed that

    Having specific industry experience is more important than generalized abilities because applied skills are key to early success in a new position.

  • Finally, 74% of business leaders stress the importance of internships in their field for subsequent success for new employees.

Does Trickle-Down Work?

Without questioning the validity of Northeastern’s survey, some might urge caution to those who rely on these results. In truth, searching for employment might show that the views of business leaders as expressed above rarely have any impact on hiring officers who are lower in an organization’s hierarchy. Perusal of posted job descriptions clearly shows that companies and organizations are most often interested in those job-specific skills that an applicant can bring to the first day on the job. As the cliché goes, new employees should be able “to hit the ground running.”

Quite possibly, the major challenge might be that the “soft skills” are difficult to detect, measure, and quantify. In an era when hundreds or thousands of online applications for each position must be screened to determine whom to interview, hiring officers must rely on word-search algorithms that match keywords with job descriptions. There is no time or sufficient resources to conduct extensive testing (presuming validity) to detect who can think critically, communicate well, or solve problems readily. And most significantly, hiring officers (and the general public?) no longer accept diplomas as compelling evidence that degree holders possess these soft skills at a sufficiently high level.

What to Do?

In their more cynical moments, some observers suggest that business leaders emphasize their desire for employees who excel in thinking, communicating, and problem solving because it makes their organization look good. In other words, we all like to think that the hiring process is high-minded and results in the best qualified persons being hired. But perhaps the gritty reality is that organizations merely seek employees who will not drive up costs by requiring extensive time and resources devoted to job training.

Bluntly stated, is the emphasis that colleges place on teaching the soft skills merely a boondoggle designed to keep their own faculty and staff employed? Does all that attention to teaching writing, oral communication, analysis, and logical thinking really benefit students in the end? Or is it simply a matter of high-brow, academic hazing?

A true answer to that question might not reflect an either/or position. Things might be more ambiguous than we might think at first. As one friend has suggested,

Job-specific skills get you in the door; soft skills help you advance.

The point seems to be that career success depends on both: applicants who already know how to do what the job requires will be attractive to organizations looking to avoid the expense of on-the-job training, but employees who can also think creatively, solve problems, and communicate effectively with co-workers and others will acquire ever greater responsibility and move up.

But don’t take my word for it! What is your experience? Do soft skills matter in hiring? In subsequent advancement and success? How can the graduate studies program at Trinity College best help those of you who are current students or alumni/ae in today’s employment climate? Your comments can help us help you!

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About William Barnett

Dean of Graduate Studies, Trinity College, Hartford, CT
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