Why is soft skills training necessary, and how do we do it?

This is the second post in a three-part series that explores soft skills, their importance, how to train people in soft skills, and the challenges to measuring such training efforts.

Without properly developed soft skills, how are people — as workers — functionally different from machines?

We posed that question in the first post of this blog series. We did so to define the essence of soft skills, which boils down to things humans can do that machines can’t — like lead a team through adversity, think critically, and display emotional intelligence.

To frame soft skills in this light also illuminates how vital they are to workers’ value. If workers’ only offering was to do as machines do — to complete tasks — then most wouldn’t stand a chance as automation technology advances. Machines don’t need sleep; they don’t need income. On top of that, they’re less likely than humans to error. Businesses can’t help but to find those differences intriguing.

The good news? Those aren’t the only differences. We are capable of more than completing tasks. For every constraint we humans have, there are five soft skills that machines can’t touch, and when people tap into those skills, the rewards are significant for themselves and their employers. People just need help extracting and developing their soft skills, now more than ever.

Before we consider some ways to do so, let’s examine why soft skills training is so urgently required.

Is soft skills training really needed now more than ever?

At the risk of being deemed alarmists, we’ve more than suggested that a significant soft skills gap exists today. In the first blog post, we cited a 2018 report from Bloomberg Next that revealed 34 percent of senior-level businesspeople believe recruits were prepared with hard skills but lacked the soft skills to be effective. We also referenced Paul Petrone’s report for LinkedIn, “The Skills Companies Need Most in 2018 — And The Courses to Get Them”, which claims that 57 percent of leaders say soft skills are more important than hard skills.

So, demand for soft skills exists, and yet workers are falling short of employers’ expectations. But how dire could things really be, given that the unemployment rate is at a 49-year low? Context, as always, is crucial.

First, there’s “The Work Ahead,” an independent task force report authored by Edward Alden and Laura Taylor-Kale, sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Last updated in April 2018, the report conveys the following as fact: “Technology has been the biggest cause of job disruption in recent decades, and the pace of change is likely to accelerate.”

The authors go on to say that workers in manufacturing, food service, and retail are the most threatened by automation, and the authors note that other service-centered workers — like travel agents, switchboard operators, secretaries, and file clerks — have already been dramatically altered by technology.

Second, there are the details behind the low unemployment rate.

Christopher Rugaber, a reporter for the Associated Press, wrote May 3 that of the 263,000 jobs added in April 2019, manufacturers contributed only 4,000 of them, compared to jobs in IT, accounting, and engineering, which topped the growth with 76,000 jobs. Meanwhile, Rugaber reported that retailers cut 12,000 jobs in April, which marked the third consecutive month of job loss for the industry. He adds that 49,000 retail jobs have been cut in the past year.

In other words, the types of jobs the authors of “The Work Ahead” identified as most vulnerable are proving to be exactly that.

Third, and perhaps the clearest correlation to a skills gap, are these stats: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there were 7.5 million job openings as of the end of March. At the end of April, the bureau estimated 5.8 million unemployed people, or those who are without jobs despite actively seeking work.

Why the discrepancy? It’s impossible to know for sure. Alden and Taylor-Kale, the authors of “The Work Ahead,” had this to say: “The record number of job openings and persistent complaints among employers about skills shortages are part of a growing body of evidence that employers need to change their strategy — instead of sitting back and hoping that schools will graduate employees with the skills they need, or that they can poach them from other companies, they need to work proactively to develop the talent they need.”

Again, we’re left with the impression that employers desire people with strong soft skills, and they’re having trouble finding them. Alden and Taylor-Kale challenge employers to take things into their own hands, which leads us to the matter of how.

How can businesses develop their people’s soft skills?

At the end of the day, a skill is something one does, and the best way to improve at it is to practice; employers need to afford their workers the time and space to do so.

Such practice could take many forms. Alden and Taylor-Kale recommend that the private sector, as well as government, “strengthen the link between education and work.” Specifically, the authors call for an expansion of apprenticeships and work-experience programs. The idea is to provide more opportunities for workers or soon-to-be workers to learn by doing, a method that we believe in. And yet “The Work Ahead” report notes that only 20 percent of adults say their education had a work-experience program, and for every 40 college students in the U.S., there is only one working apprentice.

In addition to such programs, businesses can turn to learning and development for soft skills training, in which case the learn-by-doing philosophy should still be prominent.

As Clark Quinn, director of performance strategy consulting firm Quinnovation, wrote for Learning Solutions, research suggests that practice-based learning is better than traditional classroom models for long-term retention and skill development. At the heart of practice-based learning are relevant-to-the-job scenarios that require learners to interpret information, make decisions, and reflect on the consequences — all of which are integral steps to developing soft skills.

And practice doesn’t stop outside of designated training; workers are always learning, especially on-the-job. Employers should aid them in that regard by supplying performance support.

Traditional eLearning or AR/VR?

Perhaps businesses were hoping for a stand-out solution for developing soft skills, believing that one type — traditional eLearning, instructor-led training, augmented reality, or virtual reality, for example — is best-suited for this arena. The truth is that employers’ overall approach to the training is what matters the most. The different solutions merely offer varying degrees of immersiveness, which is certainly an aspect to consider. However, regardless of how the soft skills training is delivered, it must provide learners the chance to navigate true-to-the-job scenarios, face the consequences, and reflect on the experience.

Such training can emerge only from companies that encourage their workers to take risks, to be wrong, to fail.

As Darcy Eikenberg, the founder of executive coaching firm Red Cape Revolution wrote in “Why Soft Skills Are Harder Than They Look,” “… it’s not the skills that are lacking. What we lack are workplace cultures that allow those skills to shine.”

Next week, in the third and final post in this blog series about soft skills, we’ll size up the challenge of objectively measuring soft skills and any training that aims to develop them.