The friendly hire: Why soft skills are essential in the workplace

Humans are underrated, Tesla CEO Elon Musk had once stated. At a time when artificial intelligence is changing our lives, leading to debate on the threat it poses to humans in the workspace, this view may seem posed to offer solace. But he is not wrong; and people are reinventing themselves to stay relevant at work.

A 2017 PricewaterhouseCoopers report titled ‘Workforce of the future: the competing forces shaping 2030’ found 86% of human soft skills will always be in demand. It also reported that 74% of those approached were ready to learn a new skill or retrain to keep themselves employable. What exactly are soft skills? Professional networking giant LinkedIn defines these as “less tangible and harder to quantify, such as etiquette, getting along with others, listening and engaging in small talk”. Communication, problem-solving, creativity and emotional intelligence all fall into its ambit.

In 2008, Google launched the Project Oxygen study to determine what makes a great manager. Soft skills formed the seven top characteristics even in an environment where one expects technical skills to hold greater value. The multi-year research initiative has since grown into a comprehensive programme, but the latest list from 2018 holds similar insights. In more recent data, LinkedIn’s ‘2019 Global Talent Trends Report’ notes that “as automation and AI continue to reshape entire industries, companies and jobs, strong soft skills — the one thing that machines can’t replace — are becoming absolutely vital”. According to it, 92% of recruiters said soft skills matter as much or more than hard skills when they hire; 89% felt “bad hires” have poor soft skills.

Does this mean acquiring soft skills is a make-or-break deal today?

Talking your way in

“The biggest challenge has been the phrase “soft” skill itself; it’s almost like the phrase ‘weaker sex’,” says Santhosh Babu, managing director of OD Alternatives, which aids leadership development for corporates. Babu prefers calling them “transferable skills” that help professionals move up. “A lot of mundane things that machines can do will go away, and what will be left is the emotional, humane part.”

Richa Singh, senior partner at Integral HR, a recruitment firm in Delhi , says she has “noticed that people who are able to communicate and put forth their own expectations land an offer before anybody else”. An employer with multinational clients is most likely to think twice about a candidate who has the requisite technical certifications but finds it difficult to get along with stakeholders from different cultures; someone “less qualified” may bag the job for possessing better soft skills. This is corroborated by Anand Kumar, founder of Patna’s Super 30 coaching institute: “There are many IIT first-rank holders who don’t achieve the same heights as those who hold lower ranks or graduate from other engineering institutes only because they lack soft skills,” he says.

For Mohammad Rafique, 33, a Delhi-based entrepreneur who has earlier worked as customer care support with vCustomer, Wipro and Microsoft, acquiring soft skills was not a personal struggle, but he noticed a “huge lack of it” when he started work. He has both received and imparted soft skills training, but says some organisations have a “limited curriculum, with more stress on phonetics than, say, empathy”. In customer support, it is important to keep in mind how the client is going to feel when he hangs up the phone call. Empathy with customers is the focus of the training Sidhaant Sharma, too, gives employees at Concentrix BPO in Gurgaon, Haryana.

The growing importance of soft skills has led to a proliferation of courses — at Massive Open Online Courses and Udemy, for instance — on honing them. Udemy offers one on emotional intelligence too. For millennials, who hop jobs frequently, these are the skills that eventually make a difference.

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Printable version | Dec 9, 2021 6:40:42 AM |

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