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Soft Skills: Can You Teach Them?

Job postings are usually a blend of hard skills — the specific knowledge or masteries an applicant should demonstrate — and soft skills, the blend of personal traits and qualities they possess. One handy rule of thumb is that hard skills are what an applicant knows (app development programs, say, or quantitative skills) and soft skills are how they do them (team work, problem-solving approaches, time management).

The Importance of Soft Skills

According to Fast Company, 33% of human resources recruiters say that soft skills have deteriorated in the job applicants they see over the past 5 years.

What soft skills do recruiters most like to see? Problem-solving ability tops the list, with 62% of recruiters actively looking for this skill among job applicants. It’s an especially important skill for those eventually wanting a berth in management. Forty-nine percent of recruiters prize adaptability, the ability to respond well to changing conditions and new developments.

Time management was the third most sought-after soft skills, with 48% of recruiters looking for it. Time management is the ability to be productive, to divide the time available in a reasonable and focused way, and not to waste time. Organization was the fourth most desirable soft skill, with 39% of recruiters looking for it.

Oral communication is also a highly desirable skill, rounding out the list of top 5, with 38% of recruiters looking for it.

Credentials for hard skills are widespread, but not for soft skills.

Moves Toward Certifying Soft Skills

Certifications and credentialing abound for hard skills, of course. Technical skills and digital mastery, for example, are usually demonstrated via certifications or completion of specific coursework and degrees.

Traditionally, however, there has been no way to certify and credential soft skills. This is partly because they have been considered traits and behavioral characteristics rather than teachable bodies of knowledge.

However, as business leaders have increasingly noted that there is a gap between the skills needed for business and the skills students have, there was been increasing interest in meeting the needs of business. As a result of these trends, some schools are rolling out programs that are at least initial attempts to teach, grade, and certify soft skills as part of the school’s own business strategy.

Midwestern Davenport University, for example, has a program for its students in business and technology that grades and certifies students in soft skills as well as the traditional hard skills they learn as part of the course. Students are graded on written communication, professional communication, problem-solving and analysis, leadership and teamwork, global and intercultural competence, civic and social responsibility, ethical reasoning and action, critical and creative thinking, and information and technology proficiency.

The results will be part of the student’s record, although the official course grade will apparently continue to refer only to the hard skills. A school administrator notes that the hard skills and soft skills are two different learning outcomes. Feedback on the soft skills, however, may eventually become part of the student’s transcript.