Soft Skills 101 is a six-part series looking at the emergence of soft skills as an essential requirement of any job. Here in Part 1, we look at what soft skills are and why they are important to employers.

Businesses with highly skilled staff have advanced rates of innovation and productivity.

Having formal qualifications and technical skills are only part of the requirements for modern employees.

Today’s workers must also be able to showcase ‘soft skills’ and personal attributes to be successful.

But what are these soft skills and how are they developed?

Deloitte Access Economics’ report Soft Skills for Business Success, states ten of the sixteen crucial proficiencies in the 21st century identified by the World Economic Forum are non-technical.

Associate Director Jessica Mizrahi at Deloitte Access Economics told Information Age, these skills can be described up as soft, human, heart, and transferrable. They’ve also been referred to as ‘complex interpersonal skills’.

“The World Economic Forum has a useful description – it uses the term human skills to describe ‘high-value activities that play to the distinctive strengths of being human’,” she says.

American business man and investor, Mark Cuban believes soft skills like creativity, collaboration, communication skills are “super important”.

He believes having an employee with diverse skills and knowledge can prevent future problems like Amazon’s now shelved hiring AI -- which was found to be sexist because it was plied with outdated algorithm data.

Hiring decisions

Increasingly in Australia, businesses are beginning to have the same type of views as Cuban. This sentiment is backed by the 2019/20 Hays Salary Guide which shows soft skills carry a lot of weight in hiring decisions.

Almost one-third of employers says soft skills have the highest impact on the effectiveness of their organisation -- which could be the differentiator between a successful or failed job search.

Of the 3,400 organisations in Australia surveyed for the Hays Salary Guide, almost two-thirds of those who intend to add permanent staff to their organisation this financial year, want candidates with problem solving skills. Another 58 per cent want strong communication skills and 47 per cent want critical thinking skills.

“Technical skills aren’t all it takes to get a new job this financial year,” says Nick Deligiannis managing director of Hays in Australia and New Zealand. “While technical capabilities ensure you can do a job, it’s soft skills that allow someone to share and discuss ideas, forge effective relationships with stakeholders, work with others to solve problems and accurately look at information to come to the best conclusion."

The skills to have

Professor Lawrence Cavedon, Associate Dean Computer Science and IT at RMIT University believes soft skills should be complementary to ‘technical skills’. They also tend to be more transferable to different roles or even careers.

“Increasingly [soft skills] [are] highly valued by employers,” he says.

“Both soft and technical skills are important and add value. Anyone that has both will be highly valued, but someone with outstanding technical skills will be valued even if they are not great communicators (although being poor at teamwork is more of a blocker).

“Conversely someone without the greatest technical skills will still find a valuable role if they have excellent soft skills -- and are likely to develop to overcome shortcomings through their persistence and adaptability.”

A list of top soft skills to have include communication; teamwork; problem solving; adaptability; and the ability to cope with uncertainty, leadership, independence, time management and interpersonal skills, says Cavedon.

Skilling up early in education

Just as soft skills are increasingly valued in daily practice in the workplace, it will become increasingly important to embed their development in as many courses as possible, to reflect and reinforce the importance of these skills to students in all levels of education.

According to Cavedon by the time some people reach adulthood, they’ve likely developed some or many of the important soft skills, for example, interpersonal or communication skills.

These people will have the advantage and can potentially spend more time focusing on developing other skills further such as time management or problem solving – which can all be learnt through specific strategies that are effective.

“Others may struggle with skills that don't come naturally to them like communication,” says Professor Cavedon.

“While their problem-solving or technical skills may make them valuable as future employees, it's still in their interest to try and develop their other soft skills, given how important and highly valued these are.”

“Students will hopefully thereby develop them in tandem with learning and developing their technical skills,” says Cavedon.

Developing these skills early on in students doesn’t have to be in a formal education setting. Cavedon recommends students can personally develop their soft skills through involvement in clubs and societies; volunteer work; or other activities that help develop teamwork, communication, leadership and other human interaction skills.