Soft Skills 101 is a six-part series looking at the emergence of soft skills as an essential requirement of any job. In Part 3, we look at how to obtain these skills and further them.

Soft skill-intensive occupations will account for two-thirds of all jobs by 2030. A report by Deloitte Access Economics shows evidence suggests that as a nation, Australia has a strong soft-skills base.

Skills like collaboration, respect, dealing with set-backs, critical and creative thinking are ingrained in many Australian employees, as they are part of early age educational development.

According to Deloitte Access Economics Associate Director Jessica Mizrahi, today’s primary school students are expected to be able to imagine possibilities, connect ideas, consider alternatives and predict outcomes by the time they move onto secondary education.

Mizrahi says employers want about 93 per cent of graduates to have problem solving capabilities and many soft skills ingrained into them by the time they join the workforce.

“While some people might have a stronger baseline than others, soft skills can be taught and trained like any other skill,” she says.

“These skills also need to be put into practice. Some models suggest about 70 per cent is learnt by doing; 20 per cent is learnt from others; and 10 per cent is learnt through formal training.”

Learning outside of a classroom

Professor Jürg von Känel Associate Director, IBM Research, believes there are three major areas of soft skills which are crucial for any career:

· Communication/presentation skills – being able to tell the story of your work/idea in a generally understandable way.

· Teamwork and leadership skills – being able to work with and lead/guide teams and motivate people to work together to achieve greater outcomes

· Business acumen – understanding how the world works around you.

In his experience, like most computer science students he wasn’t “the most extroverted person”. During his time in tertiary education schools and universities he “focused on teaching technical skills rather than soft skills”.

“I developed these skills from being active in youth organisations,” Professor von Känel says, “I was trained for leadership and presentation skills in the military and learned business acumen by observing senior business people [interacting] with customers.”

Adel Smee Engineering Manager at Zendesk believes that you can’t be certified in knowing “when to balance the needs of others with your own”.

“For my own career, I started work in technology as a teacher and then moved into commercial software development,” she said. “I thought I would be behind my peers as I was technically a lot less advanced. However, my "soft skills", honed from years of working with all kinds of humans, have in fact been my greatest advantage and accelerated my career far beyond my best expectations.”

On the job training

Smee believes these skills can’t be obtained or learned in intensive training courses.

The only way to improve soft skills is to to be immersed in them on a daily basis.

“[You have] [to be] in an environment that encourages and rewards their development, with other people who will let you know when what you're doing is working and when it's not,” she says.

Dr Phil Lambert, curriculum expert to OECD Education 2030 initiative, backs up the notion that competence in using soft skills is essentially obtained over time through two key mechanisms.

One is through modelling (both intentional and unintentional) by significant people in a person’s life.

The other is by being taught or guided explicitly in the actions or behaviours required and the value in utilising these skills.

“Some are better at developing these than others. Some say they value such skills but do little to support the development or utilise them,” says Dr Lambert.

“For example, it is not enough to establish an ‘innovation unit’ in an organisation; or make statements that you want your people to be creative and to be taking responsibility, consider threats and opportunities.”

That’s why employers must encourage on the job training, which is crucial for employees to constantly improve their soft skills. This can be done by having staff watch and learn from the top performers in an organisation.

Nick Deligiannis, Managing Director of Hays in Australia and New Zealand also recommends working with a mentor; reading articles; professional literature; and attending conferences, seminars or webinars.

“It’s often on-the-job experience that helps develop and improve your soft skills. A good place to start is by looking for webinars, online videos or podcasts on the exact soft skills you want to improve,” he says.

Deligiannis believes those who are looking to constantly train their soft skills should seek out someone in their organisation who has strong expertise in the skills they want and ask for their advice.

“Perhaps they could mentor you for a short period of time to help you improve your soft skills? Then make sure you keep practicing,” he says.

“It really is important to reinforce your understanding with repetition in order to make it a habit.

Another option is to seek feedback from others, such as trusted colleagues or a manager.

“When it comes to developing soft skills, being honest with yourself and reflecting on the areas that need improvement is vital,” says Deligiannis.

“Asking others for their honest opinion on the strength of your soft skills can be very insightful and helpful – provided you are willing to accept their feedback.

“You can even work with a close colleague on improving your skills.”

If your team is interested in soft skills training to suit your organisation, you can register your interest here.

Previously published:

Part 2: Understanding the must-have soft skills

Part 1: Soft skills 101: The essential non-technical skills you need