Hands up if you have ever written that you know how to learn in your CV. Or that you know how to ask for help when you need it. Or that you can speak clearly and politely in conversation. Or even that you are not afraid of identifying and facing conflict. Don’t worry if your hand is still in your pocket: nobody writes this. And yet precisely these (and other) skills are what make or break a job interview.
But let’s take a look at what these skills are actually about, because it’s easy just to say “soft skills”. According to the definitions by study centres, they are a set of non-technical abilities and know-how that support effective participation at work. They are not specific to the type of work and are strongly linked to personal qualities and behaviour (trustworthiness, discipline, self-management), social skills (communication, group work, dealing with emotions) and management skills (time management, problem-solving, critical thinking).
The problem lies downstream: being abstract, soft skills are hard to quantify, identify, assess and develop. Quite simply, candidates end up playing up their hard skills in their CVs and at interviews. And this inevitably pushes the very assessors and human resources managers to focus on university degrees, secondary school diplomas and language and IT certificates.
But, just to be clear, that does not mean that companies are not making an effort. More often than you think, candidates for a particular job are confronted with unexpected tests, to examine their ability to get by under stress, or to see how they manage out of their comfort zone. Or they are asked to meet a target or find some information in a pre-set time lapse. Or, they are asked to interact with other candidates to assess their abilities to collaborate and compete in a group-working environment.
Taking interviews and CVs out of the equation, what are companies looking for? A study sponsored by the European Union as part of the high potential migrant enhancement programme, which interviewed 77 organisations operating throughout Europe, showed that efficient time management, group work and the ability to solve problems are the three soft skills believed to be strategic by enterprises for their candidate personas.
The skills they are missing and whose absence they feel the most are instead creativity and innovation, the ability to work in a group and the ability to manage responsibility and conflict, accompanied by and in combination with critical, structured thinking. Management is of course the most important area requiring soft skills, followed by customer service, human resources and communications. Surprisingly, these soft skills do not seem to be of much use in research and development work, where it is clearly more useful to possess structured hard skills and analytical skills than to be foolish and hungry as Steve Jobs encouraged graduates of Stanford University to remain in his famous keynote speech of 12 June 2005. This was perhaps the most important praise of soft skills ever delivered.