More often than not, we hire a candidate for technical skills, yet we fire, or retain them, and even promote them, for behavioral attributes. Over the years, as companies have automated tasks or outsourced traditional line work, these behavioral attributes, or soft skills, have become increasingly important to organizational, and even more importantly, personal, success. A recent study by the Wall Street Journal found that 92% of executives felt that soft skills were equally important to technical skills, while 89% cited difficulty in finding candidates with those skills.
Some companies, Southwest Airlines for example, are well-known for hiring for soft skills while teaching the needed technical skills on the job. According to a 2015 article in the Harvard Business Review, Southwest Airlines receives a job application every two seconds, and hires only 2% of all applicants. What they look for in these applicants are primarily the soft skills. Of course a pilot needs a license, or a mechanic needs a certification, but beyond the base technical competence, all things remaining equal, the candidate that shows a desire to excel, that acts with courage, perseverance and shows an aptitude for innovation, those that show the ability to put others first, treat everyone with respect, and proactively serve customers, as well has show passion, joy and aversion to take oneself too seriously, will get the job. In order to ensure the applicants have these traits, Southwest uses behavioral based interviewing techniques and what they call a career motivation interview. Other companies have hired organizational psychologist and consultants to aid in finding the right candidates with appropriate soft skills. However, most hiring managers agree, finding these types of candidates is getting harder and harder.
A quick review of the top rated soft skills reveals the problem at hand; skills such as interpersonal skills, adaptability, strong work ethic, and emotional intelligence aren’t traditionally taught in a high school, college or trade school curriculum. Higher education, with few exceptions, is geared towards the hard skills; accountants are taught debits and credits, physicians are taught physical exam, biologists are taught anatomy. Then these students are released into the world and are expected to work well in teams, creatively problem solve, communicate effectively, etc. As higher education institutions are facing stiffer competition and experiencing financial struggles, some are attempting to incorporate soft skills into their curriculum. However, with the bureaucracies of curriculum development within established universities, and the approval processes required for curriculum change (some even up to the state level), these changes are happening at a glacial pace. Some innovative educators who realize the importance of these soft skills, both at the college and professional level, are attempting to introduce them at the middle and high school levels, however with the state education departments regulating curricula content, it is often difficult to do so. Those showing success have introduced these skills through socialization; learning the values, attitudes and actions through interaction with others, not through a formal educational approach. Still, a large number of people enter the workforce with a lack of critical skills necessary to be successful in their career, forcing employers to seek consultants and educators to teach and coach these skills on the job.
This approach has become extremely popular with organizations both large and small who have created employee, leadership, and high potential development programs in house. These programs are led by outside consultants with years of managerial and leadership experience. The programs are often customized for the organization and teach the soft, core skills that our workforce is lacking, thus enhancing the productivity of the workforce and the subsequent corporate bottom line.