The whole debate about soft skills versus hard skills sounds like a relatively modern debate, right? Well actually, not at all. The debate has been raging for many years – as far back as last century even. In 1918, Charles Riborg Mann, a physicist, engineer and civilian adviser in the US War Department, published research that discussed the importance of soft skills versus hard skills in engineering disciplines.
Within the study he asserted that: “personal qualities such as common sense, integrity, resourcefulness, initiative, tact, thoroughness, accuracy, efficiency and understanding of men are universally recognised as being no less necessary to a professional engineer than are technical knowledge and skills”.
Soft skills trump hard skills
Research by Harvard University, the Carnegie Foundation and Stanford Research Center built on that 1918 study, leading them to conclude that only 15% of job success comes from technical skills and knowledge. What does the other 85% come from? Good, well-developed soft skills of course.
So the debate about soft skills versus hard skills is nothing new. However, thinking tends to fluctuate over which skills – soft or hard – are most important when hiring. Currently the swing is definitely towards soft skills and it has been going that way for some time.
Why? For starters, there is the undeniable fact that hard skills date very quickly now. What was relevant and required five or even two years ago is soon redundant. Skills and knowledge regeneration is constant and employees need to have the right mindset that enables them to keep learning, keep developing and keep moving forward.
As a result, employers place less importance on what employees already know. They want to know what employees are capable of in the future, what their aptitudes are and how well placed they are to apply the skills needed today and the skills needed tomorrow.
The need for agile employees
It’s all about agility. It’s a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world that we live and work in and if organisations are to be agile, as they need to be, then they need agile employees. And being agile requires employees to have a whole host of personal attributes that fall into the soft skills category – flexibility, adaptability, creativity, dynamism, connectedness, emotional intelligence and so it goes on.
There is lots of research that says that these are the skills that employers want now and will want even more in the future. A survey by Talent Q, part of Hay Group, for example found that nine in 10 employers think graduates with soft skills will be increasingly important as globalisation continues to gather pace. But those graduates are already in high demand – 81% of employers say they face strong competition to attract graduates with people skills.
Technical skills are not enough
A report carried out by Grant Thornton, a professional services network of independent accounting and consulting member firms, shows just how much value is placed on soft skills in the modern workplace, even in a profession that is all about numbers. The report, called ‘The Evolving Accounting Talent Profile’, said this in its executive summary: ‘Today’s CFOs find that technical skills are a necessary, but not sufficient, competency among accounting professionals. As they and their staff become more engaged in organisational decision-making, soft skills such as critical thinking and communication are increasingly important”.
Another report, this one carried out last year on behalf of McDonald’s UK, called ‘The Value of Soft Skills to the UK Economy’, states that soft skills are worth over £88 billion in gross value added to the UK economy each year, underpinning roughly 6.5% of the whole economy. That figure is expected to rise considerably over the next five years. The report predicts that by 2020, the annual contribution of soft skills to the economy will have grown in real terms to £109 billion and to just over £127 billion by 2025. Soft skills are highly valued and highly valuable.