Soft skills, transferable skills, twenty-first-century skills…there are plenty of buzz words regarding employment out there, but what are people actually talking about? Ironically, many people have a pretty soft and fuzzy understanding of what these skills actually are, or why they’re important in the workplace.
In reality, soft skills are the qualities and capabilities that make people innovative, strategic, emotionally intelligent, and generally great at what they do. These skills don’t apply to just specific jobs or industries but are universally sought after by employers. Soft skills don’t expire with new technologies or become obsolete once you hit a certain point in your career.
A survey from Buring Glass found that one in every three skills requested by employers is a soft skill, not a technical skill. For learners looking to improve their job prospects, or for current employees who want to upskill to be more competitive in their careers, it’s important to understand what soft skills are out there. Here we will define the most common soft skills, as well as talk about some ways to show employers that you’re well equipped in those areas.
Soft Skills Definitions and Examples
“Soft skills” is a broad term, but it encompasses some very specific talents and qualities. Each of the skills listed below contributes directly to what the NACE Center defines as “career readiness” for new college graduates.
Critical thinking is all about context and situational awareness. It is the ability to understand your environment, gather data, collaborate with others, and guide a team to logical decisions based on the knowledge you have. Additionally, you have to be able to effectively communicate the reasoning behind your decisions.
Being a critical thinker doesn’t necessarily mean you have all the answers, or you’re the expert in your situation. It means you can take a lot of information from different sources, as well as different people, to evaluate the current situation and plan an appropriate path forward. Critical thinkers recognize that there is value in diverse perspectives, and they’re open-minded in their efforts to understand and solve problems.
Leadership is so much more than being a boss. Great leaders can lead others regardless of their position because they are persuasive and motivational. Leadership calls for mutual respect and trust, especially in stressful situations.
Great leaders are intentional in their efforts to seek out and value diverse opinions and experiences. They have a positive attitude and work hard to keep their commitments as they plan and execute projects. They also evaluate others fairly and provide both praise and constructive feedback in a way that inspires others.
Fast Company calls communication “the most in-demand soft skill, by far” for employers across all industries, citing a study that showed the word “communication” appeared in job postings over 35 times more than other soft skills. Communicating might sound simple (it’s the ability to share information effectively), but doing it well really is an art.
Communication requires clarity, persuasion, and organization. You also have to be able to grasp the appropriate phrasing, timing, and audience for what you need to communicate. This soft skill also includes non-verbal communication, like body language, that impacts your interactions with others.
Career & Self Development
No one is responsible for our careers but ourselves. Self-development is the ability to proactively work to upskill, find mentors, build relationships, and engage in your career progression. People who are dedicated to their self-development spend time identifying their strengths and weaknesses then work to manage those qualities effectively and make improvements where they are needed.
Managing your development includes goal-setting, looking for opportunities that will help you grow or play to your strengths, and building relationships that will help you make progress in your career. Volunteering for tasks that will stretch you or taking the lead on challenging projects are great ways to demonstrate this soft skill.
Equity & Inclusion
While many equity and inclusion activities might sound like a job for HR specialists, the reality is that each person on a team needs to have the right attitude and personal skills to genuinely engage with a variety of people across cultures and backgrounds.
Behaviors demonstrating equity and inclusion include asking for feedback from a variety of sources, actively listening to historically marginalized communities, building diverse teams, and keeping an open mind.
New graduates might think professionalism is something that they develop on the job, but the basic qualities of professional behavior can be cultivated before they ever go into an office. Hopefully some of these characteristics, like prioritizing tasks effectively and acting with integrity and accountability have been part of their college experience.
Being professional means that someone is dependable and consistent, being careful to avoid mistakes. But beyond that, professionalism should be part of your personal brand — the care in your work, your positive attitude, and the other values that you live up to.
Working in teams is often part of higher education, but rarely with the level of effectiveness that we hope to achieve professionally. Good teamwork looks like every member of a group collaborating together toward a shared goal, taking everyone’s inputs into account fairly.
Highly functional teams are accountable both individually and as a group, able to compromise and make decisions to keep projects moving forward. Teamwork depends on good relationships, constructive feedback, and everyone being open-minded as they work together.
Technology should be what takes us to the next level, not a roadblock. Businesses want employees who not only have hard technical skills but who are also open to changes in technology. Great employees use technology to make their work more efficient, more accurate, and more relevant when making decisions for their business.
Leveraging technology well means that employees recognize when tech should be used, how it can help, and what tools are appropriate. Being tech-savvy requires resiliency and a willingness to keep learning as changes come along.
Career readiness is something that never stops; proactive learners can always be preparing for the next level in their career progression. Programs like LeaderU can help you target skills and knowledge that will help you prepare for the next steps in your career. Learn more about how LeaderU helps develop the soft skills that employers are looking for.
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