So you’ve decided to work on your skillset – to have a more balanced mix of hard and soft skills. But what’s the difference? And what can you do to plug the gaps? Our experts advise…
A well-balanced skillset is a must for any serious jobseeker, but there’s a big difference between soft and hard skills, and the way to showcase them to a potential employer.
What’s the difference between a hard and a soft skill?
Hard skills are easier to quantify than soft skills. They are things you can learn in a classroom or training session, by reading a book, consulting with someone or on the job. It’s easy to say if you have or don’t have them, and with the right aptitude they are easier to pick up than soft skills too.
For example, hard skills are technical skills, usually in a specific field of knowledge or expertise, and often formally certified – e.g. ‘I know how to code’. They tend to relate to the acquisition of knowledge in structured, formal ways.
Soft skills, on the other hand, are the everyday skills we use to communicate, understand and interact with the people around us. They relate to the way you approach something e.g. ‘I have experience of project managing’ even if it’s not the case that you’re a fully trained or qualified project manager.
What is a transferable skill? And how do hard and soft skills compare?
Transferable skills are skills that are easy to transfer between different jobs, sectors and even careers. Hard skills are less transferable, for example, in HR a hard skill might be knowledge of specific local employment laws, or the ability to recruit in one niche sector. Looking more widely, proficiency in a local language would be another example.
In comparison, soft skills are more transferable because they are needed in all professions. The more soft skills you have, the more options you have.
What’s the relative importance of each in a candidate’s skills mix?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer in terms of which skills are more important because it is different for each role. For example, in the case of a mechanical engineer or R&D manager, the lack of hard skills would be unacceptable, whereas a lack of certain soft skills would be tolerated.
In other professions, soft skills are much more important. For example, in sales, you wouldn’t be expected to be a technical expert in what you’re selling, but you do have to have the soft skills - the ability to engage people, build rapport and listen actively to close a deal.
How do employers look for the right mix of skills they want? How can you demonstrate your mix of skills?
Recruiters screen candidates for hard skills pre-interview – these are often clear from the CV, but you can’t assess soft skills in this way. Soft skills are often about people and communication, so your interview is always a test of them. Interviewers need to interact with you to really get a sense of your level of soft skills. If it’s an internal interview, they can also talk to people who have experience of managing and interacting with you every day.
Which skills matter more as a career develops?
In lots of business cases, soft skills are key for success in terms of performance and promotion. The requirements for technical skills at a senior level come down, while the emphasis on soft skills grows. This stands to reason, because at this level you need to demonstrate things like leadership, people management abilities and influencing skills.
If you are doing a technical role where hard skills are more important and you have excellent soft skills as well, especially compared to your peers – then you have more potential to transfer to senior managerial and commercial roles.
How can you work out where the gaps are in your skillset? What can you do to fill those gaps?
To work out what is lacking or needs improvement in your skillset, you need to be actively listening and ready to change. Some people say they want to improve but in reality, they’re not actually that open to constructive feedback. If you do want to develop, you could consult with a mentor or expert in that specific skillset. Use a soft learning target e.g. ‘I want to get better at listening actively’ or ‘I will respond more positively to feedback’ as a lens to practise in your daily working routine.
Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback following a job interview, it’s one of the best opportunities you’ll have to get feedback and develop insight into your own soft skills. Candidates will always prepare questions about things like expectations of the role, potential challenges and opportunities, but very few ask the recruitment consultant or HR person for direct, constructive feedback about how they performed at interview in terms of soft skills.
It’s important to understand that different people have different strengths and weaknesses, and some soft skills, while desirable, may not be essential in your line of work. Many soft skills are very difficult and time-consuming to acquire, so you need to prioritise – if a soft skill isn’t essential for success in your profession, focus on something else first. If you only focus on what’s lacking, you may miss the opportunity to excel in another area.
There is also lots of training available to help you develop things like leadership skills, team-building and communicating with greater impact. Take every opportunity to practise, listen with humility, and ask for feedback.
Are there any skills that will become more important in the near future?
Employers are putting more and more emphasis on soft skills. It’s easy to train many hard skills e.g. how to use a new system or understand a new piece of industry regulation, but it’s much more difficult to train an employee in a soft skill such as flexibility, a sense of urgency, the ability to handle pressure, or emotional intelligence.
In our current economic environment, everything is constantly changing so much and so fast that hard skills which were once super-valuable and sought after may not be so in the future. A key soft skill is be adaptability – a mindset that allows you to take on new skills and cope with rapidly changing scenarios. Another is collaboration, which is related to teamwork, the ability to influence, communication and so on – this is very important for lots of companies, especially with agile working styles and rapid team changes.
It’s worth focusing on your strengths. Some people have a natural ability for problem solving or innovation, while others are excellent at detailed work. It’s common for people to overlook their natural talents and soft skills because they assume everyone can do them. If you ask yourself the question ‘What is it I cannot seem to stop myself from doing?’, you will get a strong feel for the innate key qualities that make you who you are and the soft skills that help you stand out from the competition.
Visit the career advice section of our website for more tips to help you in your career.