There is an ever-widening “Soft Skills Gap” in the workforce, especially among the newest new young workforce. The soft skills gap is not a household term like the technical skill gap, but it should be because its impact is monumental. Like the technical skill gap, the soft skills gap in the workforce has been developing slowly for decades. But the soft skills gap runs across the entire workforce – among workers with technical skills that are in great demand, every bit as much as workers without technical skills. What is more, the soft skills gap has gotten much worse in recent years.
I can say this based on more than two decades of research conducted by my firm, RainmakerThinking, Inc., where we’ve been studying young people in the workplace since 1993.
The Soft-Skills Gap:
The Missing Basics in Today’s Young Talent
“Soft skills” may be less tangible and harder to define and measure than “technical” or so called “hard” skills, just because they are called “soft” does NOT mean they are easy! So called “soft” skills is the term used to encompass a wide range of non-technical skills ranging from “self-awareness” to “people skills” to “problem-solving” to “teamwork.” These skills are absolutely critical to the success or failure of any individual in the workplace.
The problem is that today’s newest youngest workers – those just entering the workplace today — are neither accustomed nor inclined to conform their attitudes and behavior for an institution or an authority figure (especially a non-parental authority figure). They usually do not realize just how much “just doing their own thing” makes their attitudes and behavior maladaptive in the real world of the workplace. Most of them have no concept of the incredible power of the old-fashioned basics. They simply cannot fathom how much mastering the soft-skills could increase their value as employees — not only right now, but for the remainder of their careers. Even if they do understand the value, most young people today have no idea where to begin. They are usually just not that familiar with the old-fashioned basics — certainly they have very little experience.
Today’s newest young people in the workplace have so much to offer – new technical skills, new ideas, new perspective, new energy. Yet too many of them are held back because of their weakness in a whole bunch of old-fashioned basics. And most of the time they are not even aware of the gap!
Maybe you are thinking, “Wait a minute. I know some young people who are great at professionalism, critical thinking, and followership!” Of course you do! And I do too! It seems like now is a good time for me to make it clear that, even nowadays, there are many young people with excellent soft skills. It’s just that there are not enough of them – it’s a supply and demand thing. That’s especially true among young people with in-demand technical skills, among whom there is a shortage to begin with. Over and over again we hear from leaders and managers at all levels that the soft skills gap is not going away. If anything it is getting worse. And it’s not just about the youngest people in the workplace. Overall, this gap has been developing for decades. The costs are great, the opportunity costs are even greater, and yet the problem stands right there in plain sight, not even hiding.
You Can’t Hire Your Way Around the Soft Skills Gap
There are many sectors of the labor market where significant education and credentials are not required threshold criteria for employment – these include many service or quasi-service jobs in retail, restaurant, cleaning, warehousing, moving, mining, agriculture, etc.. The available talent pool in this sector offers many ‘diamonds in the rough,’ but few fully refined, when it comes to soft skills. Yes, you can (and should) poach the most polite cashier, waiter, janitor, etc. from your competition across the street, but that strategy only goes so far. Even your best hires in this sector will require significant on-boarding and up-to-speed training —not just in the basic tasks of the job— but also in your high priority soft skills.
At the next tier of the skill spectrum is the sector of the labor market in which substantial technical training may be required, but may be done in less than a year: Sometimes this training is provided by a public or private vocational education program, often affiliated with local employers. In other cases, employers provide pre-employment training or extensive on-the-job training. These jobs range from construction and assembly and mechanical repair work to book-keeping to food preparation to book-keeping to sales. These programs are intended to provide “job-ready” employees. What always amazes me about the training for these roles is how they focus almost exclusively on the hard skills and pay only lip service to soft skills training. Then they complain bitterly about the soft skills of these new employees, especially the youngest among them.
At the highest end of the labor market, the very threshold criteria for employment include years of education and formal training. If you are hiring engineers, doctors, nurses, medical technicians, accountants, actuaries, financial advisers, law enforcement officers, teachers, data analysts, code makers, code breakers, enterprise level management, and so many other roles for which the supply is far below demand, then you are squarely in the middle of the technical skill gap that gets so much of the attention in the media. It takes so much time, energy and money — so much personal investment on the part of the individual employee — to acquire these in-demand skills that employers are in fierce competition for them. Employers often have so few candidates with the requisite hard skills that they simply cannot rule people out because of seeming gaps in their soft skills. Of course, no matter how highly trained they may be in the hard skills, new employees still require on-boarding and up-to-speed training in the systems, policies, and practices of their new employer. Again, I am always amazed at how little attention is given to soft skills training in the on-boarding and up-to-speed training process.
The bad news punch-line in this quick lesson on contemporary labor market dynamics is that you cannot hire your way around the soft skills gap and, therefore, you simply must plan to address it in every aspect of your human capital management. The good news corollary is that you can hire smarter and give yourself a competitive advantage by making some slight adjustments in your staffing strategy, recruiting and selection of new employees.
What Is The Solution?
Bridging the Soft Skills Gap
Just as I’ve seen the costly downsides of the soft skills gap, in our work, I’ve seen example after example proving the incredible power of soft skills. Show me an organization with a strong, positive corporate culture and I will show you an organization that is very clear about exactly which soft skill behaviors are high-priority for their business and emphasizes those soft skill behaviors in every aspect of their human capital management practices:
– staffing strategy and hiring
– on-boarding and up-to-speed training
– performance management and talent development
– ongoing training
– management and leadership
Staffing Strategy and Hiring
Never forget, one very good hire is much better than three or four or five mediocre hires. No matter where you are on the skill spectrum, build in soft skills criteria systematically in every aspect of your staffing strategy and hiring process:
Step one. For every single position, build a profile and job description that includes not just the key hard skills for that role, but also the key soft skills. Once you identify the high priority soft skill behaviors for each position, build those criteria into the basic job requirements in no uncertain terms from the very outset. Be prepared to turn away candidates who do not meet these soft skill criteria. If you are forced to hire people without the required soft skills, make sure you have a plan in place to address those soft skill gaps from the first day of employment.
Step two. Look for talent from sources well known for the strong soft skills you need. What schools, employers, or organizations do you know where members or alumni are likely to have stronger soft skills in the areas that matter the most to you? Be proactive about seeking candidates from those sources. If you can build relationships with key influencers in those sources — teachers, career counselors, leaders, active members of organizations, military outplacement personnel, etc. – they can help you identify good candidates, which also gives them a positive reputation for helping good people find good jobs.
Step three. Include your high priority soft skills behaviors in your employer branding and recruitment campaign messaging. That’s why it’s so important to name your high priority soft skills – to have meaningful slogans to capture them. You want to draw applicants who are looking for a job where those soft skills are important.
Step four. Start with a bias against hiring: Look for red flags. If someone comes late for the interview or falls asleep during the interview or has typos in their resume – and timeliness, good health, or attention to detail are important soft skills for this job — then those red flags are telling you, “DON’T HIRE THIS PERSON!”
Step five. Build a selection process that places a heavy emphasis on high priority soft skills. Here’s a short-cut: Scare away young job candidates who only think they are serious by shining a bright light on all the downsides of the job. Whatever the worst most difficult aspects of the job may be, start your selection process with vivid descriptions of those downsides. Then see which candidates are still interested in the job. They are the ones worth testing and interviewing.
On-Boarding and Up-to-Speed Training
Ask yourself: When your new young employees walk through the door on day one, how do you leverage those first days and weeks?
First, make sure you know exactly what happens with your new hires in the formal orientation, on-boarding, and up-to-speed training. Most employers have only a minimal process for welcoming new employees and getting them on-board and up-to-speed. Obviously some employers are better at this than others. Typically employers provide a basic introduction to the mission and history of the organization (or not), they get the basic facts and figures (or not), meet some of the key players (or not), receive a primer in the policies and paper work (or not, and maybe some of the rules and traditions (or not).
Second, consider the inevitable hand-off to the hiring manager (maybe that is you), once the official orientation program is complete. That’s where so much of the real on-boarding action is going to happen and that’s exactly where the ball is so often dropped. Don’t drop that ball.
If you want to send the message that those behaviors are truly a high priority, then you have to pay more than lip service. How much of your on-boarding and up-to-speed training is dedicated to spelling out performance standards and expectations for those high priority soft skill behaviors? How much time is dedicated to championing those behaviors and teaching them?
Here’s a pretty simple rule: It should be about half.
The best approach is to have a dynamic integrated approach to on-boarding and up-to-speed training that is designed in every way to send a powerful message about high standards and expectations for employees’ attitudes and behavior in relation to work.
Performance Management and Talent Development
While soft skill behaviors have a huge impact on any individual’s performance when it comes to key performance indicators, the specific behaviors may not be spelled out explicitly or identified as specific goals in a performance management system. If you don’t measure it, people are less likely to pay attention. If there are no consequences for failure or rewards for success, they are even less likely to pay attention.
Your employees can only focus on so many things at once. And you can only focus on so many things at once. If high priority behaviors are truly high priorities, then you need to make that clear with real stakes in your performance management and talent development. Whether you have a formalized system or not, remember, whatever you measure and what has consequences and what gets rewarded, that is what they are going to focus on. If you want your employees to really focus on high priority soft skill behaviors, then you need to:
-Set clear goals for specific behaviors
-Monitor and measure each employee’s actual performance on those specific behaviors in relation to those goals
-Provide candid feedback, direction and guidance on those behaviors
-Problem-solve and trouble-shoot when course-correction is necessary
-Identify opportunities to improve on those specific behaviors
-Recognize and reward success on those specific behaviors
-Identify high-performers for key assignments, opportunities, and promotions based on success on those specific behaviors
Your employees need to know exactly what is expected and required of them when it comes to high priority soft skills behaviors – every step of the way. They also need to know that their performance will be measured and that the score will have real consequences for failure and real rewards for success.
If you succeed in getting your employees focused on building up their performance on high priority soft skills, then the next questions they are going to ask is, “Exactly what training resources can you provide me for improving in these areas?”
First, make sure to calibrate your development investment every step of the way. It’s critical to define precisely which behaviors are your high priorities and focus on them like a laser beam.
Second, you need to get your employees to really buy-in to the value of the high-priority behaviors. That means you have to really sell it to them: Take the time to make the case for why the skills you want them to learn are not just good for you and your business, but are also going to be really valuable to them. Engage heir formidable self-building drive. If their self-building is engaged they will spend lots of time on self-directed learning outside of work and, when they are at work, they will be purposely focused on demonstrating and practicing their growing repertoires on the job.
Third, provide them with as many easy-to-use targeted learning resources as you possibly can to support their self directed learning. These can be low tech resources just as much as high tech, but remember they are going to be very tuned in to just-in-time learning resources available on-line. In particular, today’s young talent is used to being able to get a simple tutorial on just about any topic by going straight to a short on-line videos with explanatory articles (or multiple videos from multiple sources). If you want to have some input on the sources from which they learn, that means building and supporting easy-to-access learning resources that are in alignment with your training goals.
Fourth, help them own the learning by giving them a concrete role in the process: How can you get them actively involved in the training? Can they bring some of their own ideas to the table? Can they help you define learning goals? Identify sources of content or create original content? Teach some of the lessons?
-Fifth, make sure they have opportunities to practice what they are learning on the job and gain recognition and reward and advancement through active participation. Pay close attention to the employees who really get into it as they are likely the ones who might stay and build careers in your organization.
Management and Leadership
Whether you are leading and managing people in a large complex organization with lots of resources or a tiny business where you are the chief cook and bottle washer, the most important element in bridging the soft skills gap is the human element. If key leaders are not walking the talk — and talking the walk — employees will simply roll their eyes at the best slogans and logos. What role are you – and other leaders in your organization– going to play in bridging the soft skills gap?
At the very least, you must build it in to your regular management routine: Talk about the high priority soft skills in team meetings and talk about them in your ongoing one-on-one dialogue with every single person you manage. Focus on the high priority behaviors in your organization, your team, in each role, or those that are particular focal points for particular individuals. Trumpet the broad performance standards regularly. Just like every other aspect of performance, build it in to your team communications and talk about it on a regular basis in your one-on-one dialogues: Require it. Measure it. Reward people when they do it. Hold people to account when they don’t.
Or you could take it the next level by becoming a “teaching style manager”:
-Talk about what’s going right, wrong, and average every step of the way.
-Remind everybody of broad performance standards regularly.
-Turn best practices into standard operating procedures and teach them to everybody.
-Use plans and step-by-step checklists whenever possible.
-Focus on concrete actions within the control of the individual employee
-Monitor, measure, and document individual performance in writing.
-Follow up, follow up, follow up, and provide regular candid feedback.
-Ask really good questions.
-Learn from what your employees are learning on the front line.
-Think through potential obstacles and pitfalls – make back-up planning part of every work-plan.
-Anticipate and prepare.
-Train and practice.
-Provide advice, support, motivation, and even inspiration once in a while.
CONCLUSION: BRIDGING THE SOFT SKILLS GAP
If you want to take it the next level, go beyond regular performance coaching. Become a true champion of soft skills in your organization and your team. Make teaching/learning the soft skills basics an explicit part of your mission and goals team going forward. Imagine the impact you could have if you dedicated just one or two hours per week to building up the soft skills of your team. You can raise awareness, make people care, and get them focused on learning the missing basics one by one — one step at a time. You can build them up and make them so much better.