Thursday, February 11, 2016

The 'Soft Skills' Question

I notice a strange disconnect in my conversations with Employers. If one asks what they are looking for in new recruits, they tend to talk about soft skills: Initiative, Team Work, Communication etc. But when they write person-specifications and seek to recruit, it becomes a conversation about technical skills, at least mostly. So, how important are soft skills, really?

It should be very important, as all of those who ever worked in a commercial environment know. One must navigate the organisational life, and that needs soft skills. The moments one is in front of customers, soft skills are super-important, critical. And, progress in professional life hinges on soft skills too. No wonder one of our customers reportedly said,"I hire for technical skills but fire for Professional Skills".

Two things come to mind. First, the relative importance of soft skills versus technical skills vary depending on who in the organisation one is speaking to. The business managers, those who lead teams and deal with customers, tend to emphasise soft skills, whereas the recruitment professionals tend to highlight technical skills. At the recruitment end, it is all about tangible, certifiable skills, without the benefit of observing the person at work, whereas it is different once the person is inside.

Second point is about expectations. The employers have come to expect the educational institutions to develop technical skills - this is what they ask for all the time - and tend to regard the culture business, specific as it is for every company, a preserve of the employing organisations. So, in a perfect world, a well-trained Engineer comes in, with all the technical skills, and then get inducted, and acquire the norms of behaviour etc., as they start working in the company. 

If this expectation sounds logical, one would wonder why employers still complain. This is because there is no perfect technical skill without the accompanying soft skills. And, besides, one can not really 'induct' a person and train him to be a professional, if s/he has not been told such things are important for most part of life. Consider the Engineer in the perfect example above: He has been told that it is all about acting solo and it is the technical skills that matter. Then, on induction day, suppose this is his 22nd birthday, he is told that it is all about working with other people, and how one communicates and collaborates matter more than technical abilities. For the poor Engineer, it would appear like a charade that he has to learn. For the company, it would be a long time before he can embrace those 'values'.

So, as a solution, we have this entire industry, primarily an American one, of soft skills training. The idea is, if they don't know, train them. So comes the powerpoint slides on assertiveness, walking on hot coal, the array of stand up presentations - the key assumption of soft skills training industry being that soft skills can be hardened with a few days of classroom! It is indeed a hit and miss business, and all the efforts to measure RoI of training etc., have usually fallen by the wayside, but, in the absence of other alternatives, the charade still goes on.

In the meantime, though, soft skills as a term lost its meaning. As anything and everything gets lumped under the label, it means nothing. At a time when employers are skeptical about their own soft skills training - and do not know it from voodoo - Educators' belated discovery of the magic of soft skills is usually greeted with indifference. And, when the claims are overt, some educators are going all the way to say that they do only soft skills, for the employers that translate into style over substance!

So, here is the 'soft skills' question: Is it important? Can it be 'taught'? Should it happen at college? What should the educator do?

Interestingly, when I was talking about this at a recent conference, someone in the audience reminded me that early years education is absolutely central to 'soft skills'. So is the home environment, one must add. The flip side of this argument is indeed that at every level, we tend to discount the value of such abilities, until at the very point of performance, when they appear all important. And, ironically, one reason why this happens is because we use this unfortunate term - 'soft skills' - as if this is a special thing to be acquired just around the time one is getting ready for a job or just got one. The very fact that we state that the students are missing out on 'soft skills', this has become a prominent media narrative, cause us to overlook what they are - the ability to connect with others, share, be tolerant and open, to be able to learn, have courage etc. 

One said, "Oh! All that is character!" Soft skills are presumed to be different. The distinction, one can guess, lies along the lines such as, having courage is character and doing smooth-talk is soft skills! But this is precisely why soft skills is so devalued and yet such a problem. We, at all levels, refuse to accept the problem and instead, trying to create bite-size solutions which can make money but not solve the problem (as the hit-and-miss results show). But, the solution brings its own problem, and in time, now, no one believes the soft skills solution anymore.

The point, at the end, is that for all the talk of soft skills, it is a fad and it would pass. Hopefully, once we have got rid of this unfortunate term, we can get back to - well - the next great fad that would come along.


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