“Soft skills,” as the name implies, are an inherently fuzzy concept. It’s clear that employers need them and workers who lack them will struggle to find a job or get ahead. But what exactly are they? People skills? Emotional intelligence? Or as one Dilbert cartoon put it, “how to listen to idiots without snorting”?
One way of defining these workplace skills is to consider what employers actually ask for in job postings. Based on Burning Glass Technologies’ analysis of millions of job postings, one in every three skills cited in job ads is a “baseline“ skill — that is, skills that aren’t specific to any particular kind of job but rather that are requested by employers across the board. (Most of these are soft skills, though the analysis also includes skills like Microsoft Office that are so common as to be considered core to employability in the modern workplace.) A worker who has these in addition to technical skills is going to be welcome anywhere.
But this list also contains a major lesson for educators, training providers, and employers: all of these skills can be taught. These are not skills that have to be learned in childhood or not at all. That means that educators can build these into training programs, workers can sharpen their skills—and employers do not have to wait passively for the right workers to come along.
No. 10: Research
This isn’t about lab coats and test tubes–at least not in all occupations. A request for research skills in a biotech job means something different from what it does in marketing. But nearly every occupation needs people who can find things out. The ability to find the right sources, sort out fact from meme, and separate what’s important from the background noise is a useful skill whether you’re working in a law firm, a retail chain, or in a hospital. While it’s no surprise that these skills are in high demand in engineering and analysis jobs, they are also in high demand for positions in healthcare and marketing.
No. 9: Computer literacy
Technophobia is simply not an option in the modern workforce. Without at least a basic knowledge of computers, entire sections of the U.S. economy are off-limits to job seekers. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of all online job postings are in occupations where employees are expected to possess digital skills. Those numbers increase to 78% for middle-skill occupations (i.e. those that require some advanced training) and 83% for high-skill occupations.
No. 8: Planning
There are sophisticated, formal processes for strategic planning, sales projections, event planning, simple calendar programs, and everything in between under this skill. But in every case, we’re talking about the ability to look ahead and anticipate future project or business needs. Whether it is anticipating what will be in demand next month or 10 years from now, every organization needs people who can plan for the future.
No. 7: Problem solving
In some ways, this is a skill that’s needed when planning fails. From programmers using logic and coding to fix software bugs to hotel workers trying to find a guest’s lost dry cleaning, the ability to overcome unexpected problems is one of the qualities that sets a top performer apart from the rest. In fact, Customer Service is one of the job areas where employers seem to have the most trouble finding this skill.
No. 6: Microsoft Word
No. 5: Microsoft Excel
There are competitors to Microsoft’s productivity packages, certainly, but with 85% or more of the market, Office is mentioned by name in an outsized number of job postings. In particular, Excel is a high-stakes skill, with spreadsheet errors blamed for major trading losses and for undermining important academic papers. Plus, although there are certainly courses in how to use spreadsheets in general and Excel in particular, far more people are self-taught. So true expertise with spreadsheets is valuable.
No. 4: Customer service
Nobody gets very far in a service-based economy without a good customer service mindset. Yet this is one of the skills for which there seems to be the largest gap between what employers want and what they can find. While there’s not much surprise that customer service skills are among the most heavily demanded for jobs in retail, sales, or hospitality, they also factor high in job requirements for finance, IT, and clerical work. Those are all areas where good customer relations may not be traditionally considered core to how we think of the job, but nobody wants to see customers go away angry.
No. 3: Writing
Everyone needs workers who can write. Literary flourishes aren’t usually required, but the ability to write clear, concise business prose is always in demand. The fact that writing is the second-most-demanded skill in engineering and IT suggests that the ability to turn complex concepts into simple words is particularly needed in technical occupations—which, perhaps not coincidentally, are fields where writing isn’t stressed in training programs.
No. 2: Organizational skills
A vague term? Perhaps. But you know it when you see it. The person who can pull people together on a project, avoid double-booking meetings, and file things so that they might actually be found again is useful anywhere. So it makes sense that employers are pounding the table for people who have the skills needed to stay organized.
No. 1: Communications skills
The most demanded soft skill is also the most human. Let’s face it: whenever two or more people are working together, one person has to tell another what’s going on (whether at the water cooler or elsewhere). This overlaps with writing to some extent, but it also includes verbal communications, presentations, and all the other ways information gets passed around in a business. Just visualize an organization where workers can’t communicate clearly. It’s the difference between Davos and Dilbert.