Preparing for the 21st Century: Soft Skills Matter

"In a gentle way, you can shake the world."

Are you prepared for a career in the 21st century?

If you're not sure, you might want to rethink your next steps.

Most of us are still operating under a 20th-century paradigm. We were taught that learning all we can about a specific profession is the key to moving up to our goal rung on the socioeconomic ladder. Even "digital natives" learned this flawed premise; like the generations before them, they still think that hard skills are the key to advancement.

In a study conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, there was a remarkable difference between the perceptions of college students and their potential employers. While the vast majority of employers thought that oral communication, organizing and evaluating information, and solving complex problems were critically important, fewer than 30 percent of college students realized that these soft skills are essential to their success.

Hard skills are easily defined and obviously measurable. They include technical mastery and vocational qualifications. For an executive a hard skill might be the ability to navigate complex proprietary software.

Soft skills are intangible and difficult to measure; while they greatly impact an individual's chances for success, they are not normally taught through traditional education. Soft skills include practices that were once in the backgrounds of all our lives. Team building, eye contact, analysis of body language, and conflict resolution were constantly demanded from us as we moved through our days. We had to learn to answer the family phone, speak politely to a clerk, and deal with the boredom of children on a long car ride.

Now we can text silently and privately in our family homes, ignore the clerk as we scroll through social media, and hand our children instant entertainment on a portable screen. In business we can negotiate contracts and form relationships through email and texting, with no person-to-person interactions. There is no firm handshake practice or eye contact involved in many of our day-to-day negotiations.

Many of us aren't getting enough experience with personal feedback and group interactions, the building blocks of basic soft skills. At the same time, we are constantly challenged to master the new soft skills involved with the ever-changing methods of communication. It's difficult to master courtesy in texting. It's easy to be abrupt in an email.

The most important soft skills are not likely to be developed through silent communication, unless we are engaging in person-to-person contact. An abrasive person can write a popular blog post, but she won't get very far in negotiating a speaking engagement or a book deal. A shy introvert can send a compelling text message, but he might not be able to maintain eye contact during an interview.

Of course hard skills are important. Hard skills build résumés. In the St. Louis workforce study employers reported that hard skills are very important for getting a job offer. But hard skills alone don't provide for significant advancement opportunities.

As careers develop, hard skills, which can be delegated, matter less and less, while soft skills continue to play the biggest role in determining your chances of achieving success. In fact, the more we constrain ourselves with hard-skill development, the less chance we have at achieving the goal of delegating our work to others so that we can advance to the next level.

Let's face it: We're in the middle of a worldwide social experiment. It doesn't matter what age you are. All of us have to engage in this precarious blending process. We have to keep up with the latest and greatest technological advances without losing our human edge.

There is not an easy answer to this dilemma, and the gap between our ideas and our actions needs to close.

While more than 85 percent of the executives and recruiters surveyed in the Gallup-Lumina Foundation report thought that businesses and universities should work closely together to develop career paths for students, fewer than 22 percent of these businesses had an internship or student advancement program in place.

When the effort is made to add feedback and practical experience to the educational track, the results speak for themselves. With an emphasis on the soft skills of networking, study habits and résumé building, the charitable foundation of One Million Degrees works with community colleges and employers to achieve a graduation rate of 84 percent, more than three times the national average.

We all need to continually relearn our communication skills and reconsider our self-perceptions.

We can build a bridge between the best of the past and the miracle of the new with a simple shift in our thinking; the past, the present, and the future all have valuable lessons and tools for us.

In this new worldview the fresh, bright light of new ideas and technologies can be used to illuminate, rather than outshine, a pathway for the wisdom of the ages.

"With hard skills, you can manage your boss; and with soft skills, you can lead your boss."
--Professor M.S. Rao, leadership specialist