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Hard skills vs. soft skills: Which matter more in the future of work?

Defining hard skills vs soft skills

In general, “hard skills” refer to specific technical knowledge and training, while “soft skills” refers to more people-connected skills such as listening, empathy, overall communication, effective leadership, and more. Indeed has done some work defining hard skills vs soft skills, including this visual:

One helpful way to conceptualize it is that hard skills are typically learned through courses, interactions with more senior employees, or training -- such as knowing how to code a mobile app or optimize an article for SEO. Soft skills, on the other hand, tend to be more of a cumulative representation of experiences with people and learned interactions, such as how empathetic you can be to others, how well you listen, and more. Hard skills are almost entirely learned; soft skills are a mix of what you’ve learned and where you’ve come from.

Hard skills vs soft skills in hiring

This is where it begins to get interesting in the hard skills vs soft skills discussion. Our hiring processes, traditionally, are very much about pre-existing competence in the form of bullet points, i.e. this level of experience, this number of years knowing this product tool or project management suite, etc. It has been debated for over a decade now whether this is the right way to hire, but that’s not the point of this particular post. Rather, all the concepts we focus on in hiring tend to be hard skills.

That’s also, of course, because it’s easier to track hard skills -- i.e. someone having five years of SEO experience -- than it is to track soft skills, i.e. whether someone can relate to the emotions of a co-worker. The recruiting process is usually about taking a large pool of people (all candidates) and reducing it to a pool you can show to the hiring manager. It’s easier to cut down a funnel on hard skills, because the observations are more objective, whereas observations of soft skills would be more subjective and fuzzy. 

So, we focus on hard skills in hiring. But there is some evidence that’s changing a bit recently. 

The rise of soft skills

While admitting that soft skills are “notoriously hard to assess,” LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends Report did reveal that 92% of TA professionals thought soft skills were “equally or more important” to hire for than hard skills. 89% of those same talent professionals admitted that when new hires don’t work out, it’s typically a soft skills issue vs a hard skills one. 

Same vein: in a report called “Hard Facts About Soft Skills” (fun title), Wonderlic found that 93% of hiring leaders think soft skills are either “essential” or “very essential” when making hiring decisions. 

But now we come to the elephant in the hard skills vs soft skills room: according to a “New Talent Landscape” report from SHRM, 84% of HR-based respondents saw a critical shortage in soft skills, including critical and creative thinking. This becomes a deeper problem because automation looms, especially in industrialized societies. COVID will potentially ramp up automation in some industries, because personnel costs (i.e. hiring people) are a huge amount of budget for companies, and many companies found themselves cash-poor when a pandemic hit. Easiest way to get a better cash position? Spend less. 

And what types of skills can automation do the easiest? Hard skills. In fact, the biggest problem with automated approaches right now is that they can’t even come close to mimicking soft skills. 

And this is where the hard skills vs soft skills debate comes to be relevant for you: The only way to level up your career, in all honesty, is to have a mix of some nuanced, niche hard skills and a wide array of consistently-developing soft skills, which will keep you fostering and developing the relationships you need to find your best career arc. 

What does that all look like, though?

What hard skills are in demand?

A lot of the research and surveys of employers on these topics were done pre-COVID, and that needs to be acknowledged, as COVID has created a different world because it’s so remote-driven and, from a retail perspective, increasingly e-comm-driven. 

Still, there are things we can learn in the context of the hard skills vs soft skills discussion.

In late 2019, LinkedIn put out a list of employer-desired hard skills, with a top 10 of:

  1. Blockchain
  2. Cloud computing
  3. Analytical reasoning
  4. Artificial intelligence
  5. UX design
  6. Business analytics
  7. Affiliate marketing
  8. Sales
  9. Scientific computing
  10. Video production

This is a good list, and all these skills show up in literal millions of job postings globally. You can combine (4) and (9) somewhat -- while a bit different, it speaks to the idea of working with large amounts of data via technology and channeling that data towards better decision-making. 

So this all begs the question: if you want to develop these 10 skills, how can you do it?

Blockchain: MIT’s Sloan School of Business has a six-week online course.

Cloud computing: Stanford University offers online courses in cloud management and overall cybersecurity.

Analytical reasoning: This is a tougher one to get through one set of courses, although Khan Academy does have some robust curriculum plans around developing more analytical reasoning.

AI: University of California-Berkeley has a two-month online program designed around the basics of AI and subsequent business applications, as does Northwestern University.

UX design: Rice University has a 24-week online boot camp to learn UX/UI design.

Business analytics: Boston University has an online program in this, and Wharton Executive Education has a Data Analytics certification as well.

Affiliate marketing: Because a chunk of the affiliate marketing world is driven by Google and YouTube, you can learn a lot about affiliate marketing just browsing YouTube. Here’s a starting point.

Sales: There are thousands of courses, coaches, playbooks, etc. online to learn sales, largely because sales drives revenue in most organizations, and thus is deemed an essential hard skill. LinkedIn Learning has a bunch of sales modules.

Scientific computing: California Institute of Arts and Technology has a “Code the Future” class that can help you begin building these skills.

Video production: MediaTech has an online course in video production, as does LinkedIn on video shooting and editing.

Those are some resources to begin developing these hard skills, but remember: hard skills are based on learning and training. It is much more complicated and long-term to develop soft skills. Let’s turn to that next.

What soft skills do we need in hiring?

You could easily come to a bigger list overall, which would include ideas like:

  • Creativity
  • Collaboration
  • Adaptability
  • Empathy
  • Listening
  • Overall communication skills
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Initiative
  • Compassion
  • Attention to detail
  • Problem solving skills 
  • Positive attitude

Now, the problem is, as we’ve alluded to -- it’s very hard to screen for these things, so soft skills don’t get brought into the hiring process as much. Let’s try this approach, then: first, let’s talk about how we could hire more for soft skills, then let’s do a mini-case study in developing one of the core soft skills, that being empathy.

Hard skills vs soft skills: Hiring for soft skills

First Round Review, which generally has great advice for entrepreneurs, held a summit for tech CTOs (startups and established companies) and compiled the best advice they heard during the event. As relates to hiring for soft skills, this stands out:

"Institute role plays in your interview process. For every engineering manager role, have the candidate sit with a member of the engineering team and play out a scenario 1:1. It can be about a technical process, an argument about prioritization or giving feedback with both criticism and praise. It’s an effective way to test softer skills and replicate what you’ll get in a ‘real’ situation. Of course, using your engineers’ time like this may seem expensive, but it’s more costly to bring on an engineering leader who doesn’t jive with your team. Plus, after doing it for a few years, you’ll find it becomes a rite of passage and engineers like participating in them."

Perhaps the most important part of that quote is “... it’s more costly to bring on an engineering leader who doesn’t jive with your team.”

When hiring, it’s best to conceptualize the hard skills vs soft skills debate like this: you want to make sure the hard skills are there. If you need an engineering manager, you obviously want someone with core engineering skills, management experience, and more. But if that person completely lacks soft skills, they will tank the team they come to lead. So you need hard skills as a baseline, but you need soft skills on top of that, or else the hire won’t work out.

It is hard to assess soft skills, yes, especially in 30-minute interviews often done by video these days. But talk through situations and scenarios with people. How would they respond? How would a specific work situation make them feel? When are they at their best? What about their worst? Walk through role-plays if need be: late code, shoddy code, coming in late, staying too late, death in the family, and more. It seems time-consuming and unnecessary to some, but it’s really important, especially for roles that will have direct reports. An over-focus on hard skills vs soft skills gets you a technically-competent person who might not be a good leader -- and that gets you a disgruntled team which probably cannot be saved by the technical competence of the lead.

A soft skills mini-case study: Can you teach empathy?

Empathy is one of the most coveted soft skills, because so much of work is about teams, collaboration, project roles and responsibilities, and knowing how other people want to work. If you lack empathy (which clinically might make you a sociopath, no bueno), you probably will not do very well in modern white-collar work. There’s just too much of a focus on teams and collaboration and styles and approaches for a non-empathetic person to be a good addition.

So if you wanted to level up your career and felt “being more empathetic” would be one approach, what could you do?

The good news: there is research indicating that if you know empathy is a skill you need to work on, you will work on it. You’re off to a good start!

If you’re already higher up the hierarchy of where you work, however, it might be a bit more challenging: people that begin their empathy journey from positions of power do have a tougher time finding empathy in their day-to-day lives.

Now, one research paper unfortunately argues that empathy cannot be taught:

"What makes empathy unique, according to Stein, is that it happens to us; it is indirectly given to us, “non-primordially.” When empathy occurs, we find ourselves experiencing it, rather than directly causing it to happen. This is the characteristic that makes the act of empathy unteachable. Instead, promoting attitudes and behaviors such as self-awareness, nonjudgmental positive regard for others, good listening skills, and self-confidence are suggested as important in the development of clinicians who will demonstrate an empathic willingness."

At the end of that quote, you see that while “empathy” cannot explicitly be taught, you can promote attitudes such as self-awareness (a reflection journal, for example), positive regard for others (challenge yourself to say three nice things to co-workers per day via some medium), good listening skills (do not begin to say something at work until you have restated what a co-worker just said), and self-confidence (again, gratitude journal and listing positive affirmations about yourself daily). 

The Jefferson Scale of Empathy purports that empathy is a cognitive attribute, not a personality trait, and thus it can be taught. Helen Riess has underscored this notion in a TED Talk on the power of empathy.

Within the hard skills vs soft skills discussion, then, the idea is that any soft skill can be developed, but it’s a question of small, actionable steps to help you hone those “soft muscles” around communication, such as writing down points you want to make in a conversation, practicing beforehand, making notes during a discussion or presentation on follow-up items, sending quick action/follow-up items to team members, etc. 

Soft skills can be developed, and that’s an important aspect of the development of your career. But as for actually landing the job? That’s going to be more a focus on hard skills and pre-existing competence/skill sets/experience. That’s just how recruiters and hiring managers are prone to think, and it probably will not change anytime soon.

As a job-seeker, then, hard skills vs soft skills is about a focus on hard skills to get the job and a focus on soft skills to develop within the job.

As a job-holder, though, hard skills vs soft skills is about making some of the hard skills become rote, developing new approaches to the hard skills (and learning new ones), and continually working on soft skills to make yourself a candidate for managerial and increased responsibility roles.

How might COVID change hard skills vs soft skills?

We mentioned this a bit above, but many industries will look into automation and cost-cutting strategies in the coming year. It’s easier to automate hard skills. If you are really code at a specific type of coding, and that coding can ultimately be done by a machine, then the only way to keep yourself around is either (a) proximity to the decision-makers or (b) soft skills valued by the team and perhaps putting you on track to bigger roles. 


COVID, then, will probably make the development of soft skills more important as we navigate the “new normal.”

How can Fingerprint for Success help with hard skills vs soft skills?

Start with our blog. We talk about issues around hard skills and soft skills daily. 

You can also look at case studies for remote team insights, which is the “new normal” for most of us. 

Much of our work is about optimizing teams and making sure they work well together, and notions of hard skills vs soft skills, i.e. coding competence vs. the need for effective listening, all factors into that. It’s a consistent discussion we’re a part of. 

Let us know if you have any additional questions about hard skills vs soft skills. 


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