Skills training: why the distinction between soft and hard skills no longer matters
The line is blurring between soft and hard skills, so is it time we came up with a new way of thinking about how we train employees?
Appreciation for soft skills always lagged behind the status of technical qualifications and, in the past, those who specialised in the training of soft skills might not have commanded the same salary as the technical trainers.
Hard skills, it seemed, could be pinned down, examined and rewarded with qualifications and a lucrative job.
Soft skills, like time management, selling techniques and presentation skills were a ‘nice to have’ but difficult to itemise - some even felt they were innate and, despite enjoyable team-building away days, could only be polished up but never really taught.
Nowadays, life-long learning is a recognised part of professional life and no employer would expect to hire someone, especially in a technical role, who didn’t have to update their qualifications continuously as new technologies are introduced.
Whatever platform or language your new recruit is qualified for, it is only a matter of time before they are needed ‘back in the classroom’ or tucking into a virtual course, to get up to speed on the features of the next release.
The shift in thinking, which makes learning and upgrading skills part of a worker’s professional role, has had an impact on the way people are hired and, inevitably, in the way that soft skills and hard skills are being taught.
Many of the courses that Global Knowledge trains around the world could be categorised as technical skills but it’s rare, maybe impossible, to teach any technical skill beyond an introductory level, without supporting the analytical, consultancy and problem-solving capabilities needed to be proficient in a professional role.
Learning is far more portable now and the future will see a growing demand for easy-to-consume learning content.
In the past, soft skills training might be more playful, whereas technical skills required a week locked in a classroom with a manual the size of a phone directory.
Those days are well behind us and training itself, which now incorporates virtual learning, mentoring and self-study as well as workshops and traditional in-classroom sessions, is not so cut and dry.
Ditching the categories
Maybe it’s time we review how skills are categorised, or avoid the soft/hard categories altogether?
The UK’s apprenticeship programmes, which the government promotes as a way to improve employability and fill skills gaps, have been brought up to speed and now provide a credible alternative to university, enabling school leavers to study to degree level (Level 6 apprenticeship), while gaining work experience and earning a salary.
For employers, who recognise that any qualification or degree is just a starting point, apprenticeships mean they can hire the personality types they want and train them, over the course of an apprenticeship and beyond, to gain the technical skills they need and well as to understand the company’s culture and working style.
Hiring for soft skills, training for hard skills
My first job, in the retail division of Lloyds Banking, was with an organisation that valued and invested in the individual, as well as encouraging and providing the opportunity for the individual to flourish. These are values that I still hold dear.
Since then, as I’ve witnessed in a career spent within the learning industry, professional training has changed.
The World Economic Forum anticipates that critical thinking will be the second most important skill to exhibit in the workplace by 2020, second only to complex problem solving.
Although the classroom still plays a vital part in the learner’s journey, learning is far more portable now and the future will see a growing demand for easy-to-consume learning content that will change the way learning is designed and developed.
There is now a bigger focus on learner preference and, whereas in the past training was synchronous and always linked to a classroom, today the availability of information, online and through training providers, means that individuals can be constantly topping up the tank of their skills – soft, hard or otherwise.
A wise employer is one who employs those individuals who see skills development as part of their working practice, encouraging them to enhance their skills, soft or hard.
Communication is key
Some employers now see a candidate’s technical qualifications as less important than their ability to communicate, work within a team and problem-solve. This has led to a change in recruitment, with more employers hiring for soft skills and then training hard skills as needed.
The World Economic Forum anticipates that critical thinking will be the second most important skill to exhibit in the workplace by 2020, second only to complex problem solving. Both could qualify as soft skills.
Is it still possible to separate ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills? Furthermore, as machines can now be ‘taught’ and technology’s role in the workplace is growing even more significant, isn’t it time we left behind the categories and recognised the multi-faceted skill set that makes for a successful individual?
Interested in this topic? Read Soft skills: preparing the leaders of tomorrow.