Across industries, research shows that certain skills consistently rise to the top as the most desired skills employers look for in prospective candidates. Ranging from the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report to Parker Dewey’s data analysis of their Micro-Internship postings and anecdotes from the Forbes Human Resource Council, the data overwhelmingly points to one key takeaway: soft skills win.
Some may refer to these skills as professional skills or interpersonal skills. Others have classified similar skills under the umbrella of emotional intelligence or social emotional skills.
Regardless, the guessing game is over. We know what they’re looking for, so let’s figure out how to help you practice and grow these skills. Worth noting, research suggests that when it comes to growing social emotional skills, education and self-awareness alone won’t cut it: practice and application are crucial to showing gains over time (Conley, 2015).
Here are some of the top soft skills employers are looking for in 2021, and some practical ways you can practice and grow in these areas.
Five in-demand soft skills and how to improve them
- Flexibility: If the COVID-19 pandemic gave us anything, it was ample opportunity to practice flexibility. It’s no surprise this is a top skill employers are seeking in 2021.
Ideas for practice: a) Approach challenges with curiosity, versus letting your automatic reaction get the best of you. Ask yourself, “what is it about this challenge that is frustrating to me? How might this challenge help me grow?” b) Think before saying “no” (or “yes,” for that matter). Daniel Amen’s VeryWellMind article outlines why this matters, among other practical strategies for improving flexibility.
- Resilience: This single trait may just break the internet before it’s all said and done. Talk about the most-buzzed-about construct! Resilience has to do with persisting, adapting, and bouncing back despite extremely challenging circumstances.
Ideas for practice: a) Offer yourself self-compassion. We are often harder on ourselves than we would be toward anyone else (experts call this the negativity bias). Flip this on its head: ask yourself, “how would I respond to a friend facing something similar?” Learn more about self-compassion and several other evidence-backed ways to grow your resilience from Kira Newman for Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine. b) Let other people in on what you’re experiencing. Don’t feel the need to have it all together. Chances are, others may have gone through something similar. The American Psychological Association puts prioritizing relationships at the top of their tips for building resilience. Bonus: try lending a hand to someone else. This builds your purpose and resilience.
- Problem Solving: Employers need their employees to be able to fully define the problem and understand its complexity, consider all stakeholders, manage and navigate emotions (personally and from other stakeholders), generate possible solutions, and execute on a decision.
Ideas for practice: a) When you face a challenge personally or professionally, write down the people who will be impacted by the decision, and what is important to each of those stakeholders. Come up with your first potential solution, then detail two alternative solutions that are equally viable. Brainstorming realistic solutions is a huge step toward identifying your final course of action. b) The next time you have a question for a supervisor or faculty member, bring your question with 2-3 ideas on potential solutions you’ve come up with, and/or the resources you’ve researched to come up with a solution. Talk them through your process instead of asking for an answer.
- Critical thinking: People who are strong critical thinkers are good at analyzing, reflecting, finding connections and patterns, and identifying inconsistencies. They’re not necessarily “yes” people; they are thoughtful in how they approach their work and bring perspective to what they do.
Ideas for practice: a) Assume you have assumptions, and challenge them. As you approach any challenge, ask yourself, what am I assuming here? Is that assumption fair, fact-based, or useful? The answer is probably no, so do some research to create a more informed perspective. b) Build relationships with people on other teams, working in other disciplines, studying other subjects, etc. Bottom line: surround yourself with diverse perspectives. This alone will increase your ability to think differently.
- Ongoing Learning: Employers are looking for curious, growing, teachable minds. Heard of growth mindset? If not, check out Carol Dweck’s ten-minute TED Talk. Have some fun with this one!
Ideas for practice: a) Read a book on a topic that you usually wouldn’t gravitate toward. Follow a social media influencer whose content is outside of your normal interests. b) What are you already good at? Build from there! Take an online course (sites like Khan Academy or Coursera are great starting points) to supercharge that existing knowledge or skill base.
Conley, C. (2015). SEL in Higher Education. In J.A. Durlak, C.E. Domitrovich, R.P. Weissburg, & T.P. Gullotta.(Eds.), Gullotta. Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning Research and Practice. (pp. 197-212). The Guilford Press.
Mary K. Wendel, MEd, LPC
Mary K. Wendel, MEd, LPC is a licensed professional counselor and a career consultant at Next Move Consulting. She teaches Career Counseling at DePaul University, and in the past has served as a career counselor at Loyola University Chicago, has taught career development courses to undergraduate students at Loyola University Chicago, and has volunteered her career development know-how to Chicago non-profits including Cara Chicago and The Mom Project Unity Program. She has supported hundreds of individuals in their career discernment journeys.