Here are the 5 soft skills employers demand most

A new report confirms what many HR leaders have been saying in recent years: Soft skills are critically important to employers across the workforce.

According to the new report, Workplace Basics: The Competencies Employers Want, by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the most in-demand skills across the labor market are:

  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Sales and customer service
  • Leadership
  • Problem-solving/complex thinking

These in-demand skills “are associated with higher earnings in jobs in which they are used most intensively,” researchers wrote. The report explores how 120 knowledge areas, skills and abilities are in demand across the workforce and within specific professions, and it also gauges impact on earnings. The two least in-demand skills were strength and coordination, the report found.

The research is the latest to recognize the value of soft skills. This fall, leaders from Cornerstone noted at an HR Tech session that so-called hard skills—often technical in nature—typically only have a shelf life of two to three years, a number that is going to continue to shrink as digital transformation accelerates.
As the world of work becomes more complex and competitive, employees increasingly need to be “self-directed, empowered, critical thinkers who push forward through the fog of uncertainty and ambiguity,” notes Ben Brooks, co-founder of coaching platform PILOT and an HRE columnist. “A STEM graduate degree from a top school may get someone a job, but keeping it, succeeding and advancing one’s career is far more a function of their ability to operate, lead and align.”
“What good are technical skills if we lack influence, emotional intelligence, effective communication and the ability to navigate conflict?” Brooks adds. “Seldom is the idea or the content the problem; its mostly the interpersonal dynamics.”
However, the phrase “soft skills” could use some rebranding, Brooks says. More accurately, they are the “things that separate intention from results” or “the difference that makes the difference when driving performance.”
For instance, there is nothing “soft” about influencing people and driving behavior change; industries focused on behavior change—education, marketing, law enforcement, healthcare media—are among the largest in the world, he notes.
“Knowing how to get the attention of people and shift their behavior is perhaps the most 21st-century capability I could think of,” Brooks says.

The report also found:

  • Earnings increase by about 20% when workers use communication more intensively on the job.
  • Higher use of problem-solving and complex thinking leads to an earnings premium of 19%.
  • 77% of the workers who use communication most intensively have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 10% of workers who use strength and coordination most intensively.
  • In healthcare professional and technical occupations, high school-educated workers who use communication most have higher median earnings ($52,300 per year) than the overall median for workers with some college or an associate’s degree ($49,200 per year).
  • The most intensive use of problem-solving and complex thinking among blue-collar occupations is associated with an average earnings premium of 89% above the median.

On the other hand, community services and the arts is the only major occupational group in which workers appear to earn less for greater use of almost all of the most in-demand competencies.

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Matt Zalaznick is senior writer for District Administration, an LRP publication.

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