At the Core of Job Success: Why “Soft” Skills are Core Skills

    This post was written by Sarah Landes.

    Just as the school year begins, college students and employers are already thinking about what the hiring landscape will look like next year. Many employers will be looking for candidates with ‘harder’ technical skills from majors that sound like job titles - Engineering, Accounting, Computer Science. But what if those candidates who have only developed ‘hard’ skills actually were not their best bet?

    The need for hard skills in the workplace may seem like a no-brainer based on the amount of press around their value, but the reality is that what employers want and need most is the exact opposite. While degrees like Philosophy, History, and Literature might get a bad rep, the truth is that students in those tracks develop the skills most in demand by employers. In particular, companies have identified skills such as problem solving, communication, writing, adaptability, curiosity, and conscientiousness as critical to success. Unfortunately, the value of these skills is often undermined by calling them “soft skills,” while in reality there is nothing soft about them.

    Hiring managers and students should think of these skills as ‘core’ skills because they are the ones that are most likely to contribute to company’s success. In a study by Boston College, Harvard, and University of Michigan, researchers found that soft skills like communication and problem solving boost productivity and retention in a company by 12 percent and deliver a 250 percent ROI because of that increase in productivity. As companies become more dynamic, interconnected, and flexible there is a clear need for core skills  to be recognized as such.

    All students need to hone these ‘core’ skills regardless of the degree they are pursuing. We should not write off liberal arts majors as unable to perform a business role - but on the flip side, we also should not  assume that technical  and or business majors have those core skills already. Unfortunately, every summer hiring managers overlook talented potential hires—the ones who have already developed their ‘core’ skills within a liberal arts curriculum—by focusing on majors, GPA, and pedigree. Yet for every STEM or finance major, there are almost double the amount of liberal arts majors that already have these skills found to predict career success.

    For example, I am privileged enough to have attended a top-ranked university, graduating from the University of Chicago with a degree in International Studies. But when I should have been excited about the academic and professional opportunities open to me, I was instead constantly worried that my skills as a liberal arts major would not help me land a job. In fact, I was often intimidated when applying for internships and jobs because I didn't feel I had enough relevant experience or the right academic background to be set up for success.

    What I didn’t realize was that the skills I was developing as a liberal arts student—the core skills—would successfully set me up for the first steps in my career. As a liberal arts major, you’re confronted with problems and questions that don’t always have a clear cut answer. It’s not a p-set with one set of solutions that you are working towards. In many cases, you have to take in multiple sets of qualitative and/or quantitative data—whether from past experience, research, or working with peers, in order to attack a problem in a constructive way. This mimics real-life business situations very well.

    Equipped with these skills, I was able to land a job at a tech startup, where I’ve had to utilize every core skill I developed in school. I’ve definitely had to spend time learning the technical aspects of my job, but my background taught me how to learn those technical skills quickly, as “learning how to learn” was a core tenet of my academic program. Especially in a fast-paced startup environment, core skills like adaptability and creative problem-solving have been crucial to my job success.

    There is absolutely a crosswalk between liberal arts and the real world, and my experience along with many others’ is a testament to that. However, it is disheartening to see many students with liberal arts backgrounds continuing to be passed over in the hiring process; while it may be easier to justify hiring a student or recent graduate who already has the technical skills for a specific job, many lack those core skills that are vital to their career development into leaders or managers. It is also disheartening to know there are many students who, like me, did not understand or appreciate the crosswalks between the skills they were developing and the real world before taking their first job. We need to do a better job at communicating the value of those skills to students and employers alike.

    Not to minimize the importance of job-specific skills - but many of those skills can be learned after graduation on the job, and often need to be, given the rapid changes taking place across all industries and departments. In contrast, core skills cannot easily be developed through a bootcamp, seminar, or other program, but rather require years to cultivate. Therefore, an excessive focus on technical skills, and specific majors won’t necessarily help find the right employee. Of course, some job specific technical skills might be necessary, but they won’t give you the optimal candidate if that’s the only criteria of the hiring process. In order to fill the skills gaps in your company, your hiring process needs to look for a healthy mix of technical and core skills by giving both sets influence. I am no hiring manager, but perhaps giving a second look to candidates with non-technical education backgrounds, but otherwise impressive resumes would be a step in the right direction.

    Irrespective of academics, liberal arts majors can develop the tools for career success. It is not risky to hire them, as they can add immense value to a company with their already developed core skills—especially when you consider that the link between merit and success can only truly be formed through those core skills.

    Call me biased but looking beyond traditional technical majors for internships and out-of-college jobs can and will enrich company culture and growth. Recognize that some students you are  interviewing may not have the best code or the ability to quickly draw up financial models—but they can learn. The core skills they bring to the table instead will set your team up for success.