Essential Soft Skills for Career-Readiness

For those of us preparing to enter the workforce or seeking a change in careers, the term “career-readiness” is popping up everywhere we look. You may be thinking, who defines career-readiness and what is it? According to NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers) “Career readiness is a foundation from which to demonstrate requisite core competencies that broadly prepare the college educated for success in the workplace and lifelong career management.” In other words, career readiness is the proof of the essential skills needed for success in the workplace both now and in the future.  

Skills like these are becoming more and more critical to employers as they hire students and seasoned professionals alike. So let’s take a deeper dive into what makes up the career-readiness pool and find out how to soak up these important skills.

We’ll explore answers to questions like:

  • What are soft skills? 
  • Why are they so important?  
  • What are specific soft skills that employers are hiring for? 
(And if you want to jump to specific sections, feel free to use the table of contents below to navigate through what info you want to dive into.) 

What are Soft Skills (and Why Do They Matter)?

Don’t let the name deceive you. Soft skills are not weak. Often referred to as power skills or essential skills, soft skills are non-technical skills that relate to the ways in which you work (how you interact with others, how you solve problems, and how you manage your work). 

Hiring managers look for candidates with soft skills because they make successful employees according to Society for Human Resource Management’s SHRM/Mercer Survey Findings: Entry-Level Applicant Job Skills survey. For example, someone that has mastered job specific or technical skills but struggles to manage their time or work within a team, may not be successful at work. A person that is an expert in computer programming but battles with organizing and keeping commitments may receive negative performance reviews at work.

The bigger question about soft skills is: What makes soft skills so important? More importantly, why should we invest in our own soft skill development and what does that training do for my career?

 

Let’s unpack that question. 

Those that invest in their soft skills are more productive, more successful, better communicators, negotiators, collaborators, more confident, less stressed and less likely to job hop according to the eLearning Industry

In fact, research from Boston College, Harvard University, and the University of Michigan reports that soft skills training boosts productivity and retention while delivering a 250% return on investment in these areas. I don’t know about you but that is a surprisingly high return on investment in my books!

What about companies and organizations? How important are soft skills for these folks?

With more and more jobs becoming automated and the increase in the use of AI, soft skills training has never been more important nor in higher demand. In fact, Deloitte reports that by 2030 almost 2/3 of occupations will be dependent on soft skills. In fact, Forbes found that if you are a business owner, hiring employees with strong soft skills could increase your organization’s revenue by $90K. 

At this point, you may be at the soft skills station but still not quite ready to jump on the development train. That’s fair, especially if you’re thinking of questions like: 

  • Do soft skills really impact me? 
  • What if I’m looking to improve not only in the workplace but in my personal life too? 
  • What if I want to better myself and my relationships? Can soft skills help me there or is this just a professional trend?

Soft skills training may be the surprising answer you are looking for to all of those questions.

For those of us trying to get into a growth mindset, build character, and/or improve personal relationships, soft skills are an essential place to start. Learning skills like conflict management, effective communication, problem-solving, and emotional intelligence will boost confidence, make stress easier to manage, and make relationships more meaningful. Think about it: 

  • Are you not a great collaborator? 
  • Can you easily solve problems? 
  • Do I communicate well with others? 

It only makes sense that working on these abilities will help us all become better human beings, both professionally and personally. 

Let’s take this and put it in real life: A friend shares with you that she often feels shut down when she is telling you about her day. You reflect on what she shared; and you notice that your body language may be coming off as disinterested. (Did you know that nonverbal communication can deliver as much as 70% of our communication?) Reflecting deeper brings you to learn to make eye contact more often while monitoring your body language (no rolling of the eyes, tapping foot, or frowning); you also discover how practicing active listening techniques helps you better focus on the speaker. Learning, developing, and mastering communication skills shows interest and lets others know that they are important to you. That same person may even compliment you on growing into a better friend.

 

The History of Soft Skills

Seeing how important soft skills are—not only in the workplace, but in our lives and relationships—you may ask “where have they been all our lives?” Believe it or not, soft skills have been around for nearly five decades. 

The U.S. army began the formal usage of the term “soft skills” in their training manual to describe any skill not related to the use of machinery. Over the years, interest grew. As we researched, more and more people are starting to understand the importance of these essential skills. Today, companies and organizations all over the world are not only seeing the importance of soft skills but are also actively investing in the training and development of these power skills.

 

In 2012, The European Commission set the agenda for new skills and jobs to include training and explaining this new set of skills to young adults. Today, soft skills are a key factor for hiring and performance. This is further confirmed by the fact that now employers are giving as much importance to soft skills as the GPA (once considered the most crucial factor in decision making for selecting top talent). Further evidence found in a 2019 survey conducted by the Society of Human Resource Management (drumroll please) that 75% of employers were having difficulty finding college graduates with the soft skills their companies needed. Clearly, it seems to be becoming more and more difficult to ignore the need for strong soft skills and their link to success at work (and in life). 

In 2013, when Google published findings of “Project Oxygen,” the results shocked a large percentage of the population as much as it did Google itself. When assessing the seven top characteristics of successful or high performers in the company, the top performers were not those that held degrees in science, technology, engineering, or math. Instead, it was those that had (you guessed it), soft skills. They had skills like listening and communicating well, having empathy, being a critical thinker, plus great teamwork and collaboration (aka interpersonal skills). 

 

6 Essential Soft Skills  

With all this information and evidence pointing to the need for more humans with developed soft skills, the question can arise as to where we can start focusing our development to become better? 

Google released findings from a study in 2017 (Project Aristotle) that included a list of soft skills that their best teams exhibited: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. There was one, however, that came in first place as the one soft skill each and every member of their teams must have and that was emotional safety. Team members had to know they were being heard. The most important skill to ensure a successful group is that the members feel confident in using their voice and making mistakes.

Google is not the only one conducting studies on soft skills. Around the same time as Project Aristotle, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) surveyed 260 employers to find what they deemed to be the secret ingredient to the most productive and successful employees. The ability to communicate effectively with others both inside and outside of the organization was at the top of the list for both large and small firms alike. 

More recently (2021), NACE published a list of Career Competencies or key skills and abilities, across all job functions, to demonstrate success in the workplace and lifelong career management. In identifying those career competencies, NACE proposed to provide simple language to the evidence-based behaviors employers are seeking. Using vast research and empirical data from literature and experts, these competencies are tied to measurable and observable behaviors. The career competencies NACE highlights are synonymous with the soft skills identified by many others as being the most important in preparing both traditional college students and seasoned professionals. The best part is that these key skills are used in every industry.

Regardless of the job you are applying for, the need for at least some soft skills is key. The list below shows some of the most critical soft skills and examples from The Balance Careers and the NACE.

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Emotional Intelligence

Defined as the ability to understand your own feelings and the feelings of others, and to handle those feelings well.

  • Effective Example: (Brenda has been trained in conflict resolution.) Brenda is bothered when her teammate interjects side comments during their meetings. Brenda approaches Mary and shares how she is feeling and Mary listens. Mary appreciates Brenda’s honesty and shares her feelings as well.

  • Ineffective Example: (Bailey has not been trained or does not possess conflict resolution skills.) Bailey is bothered when a teammate interjects side comments during meetings. Bailey does not want to “rock the boat,” and thus, keeps their feelings to themselves but grows more and more resentful as their teammate’s behavior continues. Finally, Bailey expresses their frustration in an angry way and the criticism is not well received by their teammate.

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Conflict Resolution

Defined as successfully handling and resolving workplace issues.

  • Effective Example: (Brenda has been trained in conflict resolution.) Brenda is bothered when her teammate interjects side comments during their meetings. Brenda approaches Mary and shares how she is feeling and Mary listens. Mary appreciates Brenda’s honesty and shares her feelings as well.

  • Ineffective Example: (Bailey has not been trained or does not possess conflict resolution skills.) Bailey is bothered when a teammate interjects side comments during meetings. Bailey does not want to “rock the boat,” and thus, keeps their feelings to themselves but grows more and more resentful as their teammate’s behavior continues. Finally, Bailey expresses their frustration in an angry way and the criticism is not well received by their teammate.
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Communication 

Defined as clearly and effectively exchange information, ideas, facts, and perspectives with persons inside and outside of an organization.

  • Effective Example: Darius possesses great communication skills. Darius often employs active listening techniques to summarize what he has heard from his supervisor regarding instructions for projects he is responsible for. This allows Darius to ensure he has heard the details and directions clearly in order to successfully execute the plan.

  • Ineffective Example: Trevor does not do well with communication. Trevor has difficulty understanding or remembering what his supervisor has directed him to do for projects he is responsible for. Trevor does not ask questions or clarify for understanding.
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Critical Thinking

Defined as identifying and responding to needs based on an understanding of situational context and logical analysis of relevant information.

  • Effective Example: Patty is a powerful critical thinker. She is proactive and anticipates needs in order to prioritize tasks. Looking ahead at the calendar, Patty notices her supervisor has a busy schedule the following day and ensures the necessary items are readily available in the conference room where most of the meetings will be held.

  • Ineffective Example: Terry is not strong in critical thinking. Terry is caught off guard when his supervisor calls from the conference room and shares that the necessary items are out of stock and needed immediately for the meeting that is taking place. Terry did not look ahead at the schedule to anticipate the need.
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Teamwork 

Defined as building and maintaining collaborative relationships to work effectively toward common goals, while appreciating diverse viewpoints and shared responsibilities.

  • Effective Example: Ciara works well on a team. She listens carefully to others, taking time to understand and ask meaningful questions. Ciara uses her personal strengths, knowledge, and talents to complement her team. She ensures individual and team responsibilities and deliverables are met.

  • Ineffective Example: Dennis does not work well on a team. He has difficulty collaborating with others to reach goals. Dennis often disagrees with or shuts down ideas from team members and prefers to keep his ideas to himself. Dennis completes the tasks he is assigned without engaging with or keeping team members appraised.  
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Problem-solving 

Defined as determining why an issue is happening and how to solve it.

  • Effective Example: Thomas is really good at solving problems big and small. He notices customers have difficulty deciding what to order and the wait time is creating frustration for regular customers who come in and know what they want. Thomas makes copies of the menu and places them throughout the café so all customers entering can see the menu options and decide prior to getting in line.

  • Ineffective Example: Veronica does not have the skill of problem-solving. She is beginning to dislike her job at the café due to customers complaining about the long wait. The regular customers are upset because people cannot decide what to order and read the menu when they get up to the counter. Veronica complains to her supervisor that she needs to hire more help.

How to Upskill Soft Skills 

The ease from having developed can be powerful for both job seekers and employers alike. But figuring out what and how to develop soft skills can be daunting. To make it easier, here are four steps from Indeed that will get you started:

  1. Select a skill you want to improve
  2. Observe and emulate the positive soft skill you see in others
  3. Set milestone goals for what improvement would look like for you
  4. Use resources to help you power up  

Select a skill you want to improve and practice it consistently.

The phrase “practice makes perfect” applies here. The first step is identifying the skill and routinely working to improve or practice it. Let’s say you want to improve time management both at home and at work. You put this into practice by setting your alarm clock to wake up earlier so you can arrive to work on time or early. At home you decide to start on projects earlier so you can complete them instead of leaving projects undone.

Observe and emulate the positive soft skill you see in others

Are there others in your life or at work that have mastered the soft skill you desire? Observing the behaviors of others and incorporating that behavior into your daily routine can solidify the behavior in your own life. You may observe effective communicators often taking notes during meetings and writing down not only their own thoughts but what others say as well. You begin to employ the same practice and soon discover the positive changes it brings to your own active listening and effective communication.

Set milestone goals to improve soft skills

Asking a trusted friend or colleague for guidance or reflecting on past performance reviews can help you identify areas you want to improve upon. Setting specific goals that are measurable with the behavior you want to improve, including how often or when you will practice the behavior is important.

Find resources to help you learn 

There are many resources available to help you improve your soft skills. A simple search will provide a list of books, podcasts, or online learning platforms as you seek to improve specific soft skills. Anyone can improve soft skills with experience and practice.

Top Tips for Soft Skill Development

With our busy schedules it may be difficult to get started or to even know where to begin on this soft skill journey.

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So, what is the best way to develop these power skills? Here are a few best practices on how to approach your own soft skill development. Pretty soon you will be on your way to mastering the soft skills you desire. 

  1. Determine the soft skill(s) you want to level up. Good learning opportunities begin with a training needs assessment. It is hard to know where to begin if you don’t know where you want to go. Start with outlining your own goals and areas you want to grow in, like getting your first job out of college or making a career change into a new industry or landing that promotion you’ve been eyeing. Reflecting on what you want in the end will allow you to see what skills you’ll need to sharpen during training.
  2. Try out and identify the training tools that are right for you. There are a variety of training platforms that offer soft skills training. The best ones monitor your progress, allow you to get feedback from others, and let you practice the skill in realistic scenarios. The best way to figure out which tool is for you would be to try out different ones and get a feel for the one that is giving you the most bang for your buck.
  3. Find a mentor or be a mentor. Mentors can help us grow personally and professionally. They can offer us a different perspective and can shine a light on areas we may not have noticed needed attention. The right mentor can be crucial to gaining new skills and knowledge as well as help guide you through obstacles that sit in your blind spots. Equally important is looking for opportunities to mentor someone else. When you become a mentor you pay it forward and teach another the skills you’ve earned along your own journey.
  4. Embrace new opportunities to practice your new skills. “Today is not just another day. It’s a new opportunity, another chance, a new beginning. Embrace it.” (Anonymous quote) When you see new opportunities to learn new skills, or face challenges that get in your way — embrace them. Even if it is a new project that is out of your comfort zone, go for it. Especially if the opportunity aligns with the soft skill you are working to improve or learn.

Now more than ever, employers are looking for employees with a willingness to learn or gain more than just practical (or hard) skills. The widening gap in career preparedness between students and the professions they’re working to get into is showing more proof that essential skills are needed for success in the workplace both now and in the future. These skills are becoming more and more relevant to employers as they seek to hire and fill positions and they are moving to the forefront in career preparation and workforce development. 

The soft skills train is speeding down the track. Don’t wait for your soft skills to develop on their own. Whether you are a student, graduating job seeker or seasoned pro, soft skills will not only bring you much success in the workplace but it will also improve your personal life as well. 

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