In the working world, soft skills are the difference between good and great; they’re what make a competent candidate the ideal candidate, and will be the make or break of your success. When most of us hear the term “soft skills” we intuitively think of confidence and teamwork, yet the scope of these skills really goes much deeper. It’s the ability to communicate needs, place things in context, use emotional intelligence to collaborate with others, solve complex problems, be resilient under stress, and adapt to challenging situations. Most people who are at the beginning of their careers undermine the level to which success can be attributed to these skills. You can be a genius computer programmer with an impressive resume and a list of accolades behind your name, but if you can’t display strong emotional intelligence and the right attitude, your chances of landing your dream job in today’s world are slim.
The truth is, without soft skills, hard skills are quite useless. Soft skills are also considerably harder to learn – there is no university degree that will teach you how to work in difficult teams or to be a good listener. These are all skills that you can only learn through experience, which is why so many programs today place an emphasis on the application of knowledge – not only is it a proven way to solidify learning, you’re also gaining invaluable, transferable soft skills that you will use for the rest of your life. Lastly, if all this doesn’t convince you, consider that the future workplace will rely on soft skills. A study by the University of Oxford and Citi predicts that 47% of US jobs are at risk of being replaced in the next two decades due to advances in automation and artificial intelligence. As we face this imminent reality, the pressure is no longer simply to create more jobs for an expanding population but to create jobs that humans can do better than machines. Our greatest asset is who we are, not what we can do – and this means our ability to relate to others, our ability to be creative, to problem solve, and display leadership at a time when anything can get done, yet it’s how it gets done that really matters.
While soft skills cover a broad array of personality traits, there are a few that stand out as key:
This can mean anything from how you speak during meetings, write a report, listen to a colleague, or respond to emails. The ability to communicate well is essential and expected. And if you’re still trying to get your foot in the door, networking is how you get there. Good communication will mean that you are able to sell yourself and what you stand for in a way that your qualifications won’t.
How quickly can you adapt to change? How do you react to problems that come your way? Being flexible also means being comfortable with uncertainty. More and more jobs these days allow employees flexibility in how they attain their goals. Beyond this, career change is also becoming more common. According to the Department of Labor, by the age of 42 you probably will already have had about ten jobs. Perhaps 50 years ago, change was seen as negative and unsettling. Today, it’s a chance to grow and expand your capabilities.
A collaborative mindset
Face it, no matter what you end up doing, you can’t escape group work. People who work well in teams display good communication, responsibility and empathy. In high school, group work was the one thing most of us dreaded – sometimes it meant taking on all the work or realizing that even friends can let you down professionally. As you grow older, you realize that these experiences shape how we conduct ourselves professionally and practice our own leadership skills. Effective collaboration means being able to overcome the hurdles that inevitably get thrown our way when working with others.
A strong work ethic
Simple things like being punctual, meeting deadlines, and going the extra mile can make a world of a difference. If you’ve ever encountered people who display these traits, you’ll know what a relief it is to work with them. They’re easier to trust, more reliable, and the first person that comes to mind when you think “great employee/teammate/partner”. Be that person.
Many people will look at these skills and push them to the back of their minds as an afterthought. The most important thing right now is passing that course, getting that degree, and landing that internship, right? Yes and no. College graduates and high school students deciding on their future seldom consider how they plan to acquire these skills along the way. Soft skills are no longer elusive concepts found in the back pages of self-help books. They’re at the forefront of the modern workplace. For young people, the opportunity to develop them is waiting around every corner. We may give up valuable opportunities because they don’t seem “rewarding” enough or don’t seem to align with our career aspirations. But challenging ourselves to try something new, often through volunteering or taking risks, can turn out to be what teaches us the most valuable lessons.
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