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For employers, soft skills are hard target

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As president and CEO of the West Shore Chamber of Commerce, George Book Jr. is in touch with many business leaders.

The so-called “soft skills” — working well as part of a team, being flexible when plans change and getting along with co-workers — Book is hearing an almost unanimous verdict: businesses need people who have them.

“If you have someone who doesn’t know something in a technical field, you can train them to do that,” Book said. “What you can’t train them to do is have a firm handshake, look people in the eye when they’re talking to them, and be able to appropriately use skills like managing emotions and show initiative.”

At a time when the state of the workforce is the top issue on the minds of company leaders, soft skills needed in the workplace can’t always be taught to people already working, Book, 41, said. “Those are things that need to be done early on.”

That’s why the Camp Hill-based chamber leader is working with a national organization of 2,000-plus business leaders to emphasize the importance of teaching soft skills in early childhood.

Book collaborated with the organization ReadyNation on a recent report, “Why business executives want employees who play well with others.” ReadyNation is a nonprofit seeking to promote education reforms that impact the workforce, its Pennsylvania state director said.

In Pennsylvania, ReadyNation wants policymakers to concentrate funds into programs that help eligible 3- and 4-year-olds without access to publicly-funded, high-quality pre-K programs, said the state director, Steve Doster. ReadyNation is calling for a $75 million increase in the 2017-18 state budget for programs that Doster said would serve an extra 8,400 children.

“Social-emotional skills affect success in the workplace … and what happens in today’s preschools has such a big impact on those skills,” Doster said, noting that many business leaders “attribute success of a company not to ‘rock-star’ employees, but rather to the overall ability to work as a team.”

In one national poll, nearly two-thirds of business leaders said they knew someone who lost a job or a promotion due to poor social/emotional skills rather than poor technical abilities, according to Zogby Analytics, an opinion and research firm based in Utica, N.Y.

Book often hears stories about how certain employees are not being flexible or understanding enough in working with others.

“I think gone are the days of the individual who just plows along,” he said. “There’s more and more teamwork and collaboration in many different industries.”

Tom Baldrige, president and CEO of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry, is hearing the same thing.

Among the company leaders he talks to, he said, workforce is the “No. 1 issue impacting their economic future.”

The lack of soft skills is a big part of that, he said.

Paying attention

Julie Lichty, a career and life coach in Manchester Township, is seeing an increased focus on soft skills, even finding them listed as a job requirement for some openings.

Her clients also report more than ever that interviews include a lot of behavioral questions, and there are increased discussions during interviews about culture.

Lichty also finds that many business leaders now say it is more important to find someone who meshes with the team and the culture than someone who, even if brilliant, doesn’t play well with others.

“I don’t think it’s ever been more true that a wise manager ‘hires for attitude and trains for skill as needed.’ Of course, this doesn’t negate the need for basic skills or specialty skills, but the emphasis has changed or expanded over the past decade,” Lichty said.

Scott Fiore, general manager of TriStarr, a staffing firm serving the midstate region from Manheim Township, Lancaster County, said soft skills are like another often-forgotten attribute in the workforce: professional attire.

“When I entered the workforce, I got really good advice, ‘Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.’ And still, to some degree, job-seekers should understand that you’re being interviewed and maybe hired by someone more than 50 years old, like me,” he said.

Show up for an interview looking sloppy, he warned, and “it tells me that if you’re not willing to put the effort into getting dressed up for your interview, what are you going to look like if I ask you to go see a customer of mine after I’ve hired you?”

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David O'Connor

David O'Connor

Dave O'Connor covers York County, manufacturing, higher education, nonprofits, and workforce development. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at doconnor@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @DaveOC_CPBJ.

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Comments

Pj May 22, 2017 9:57 am

I have absolutely no disagreement with this article only that YCAL, a career education community nonprofit in York County has worked with local employers and high schools on exactly this subject for over 20 years! This isn't new news, although it is an important part of continuing comprehensive career education.

Liz Weber May 22, 2017 9:30 am

Whether I'm working with a client group on strategic planning, succession planning, or leadership training or executive coaching, the soft skills ALWAYS matter because leaders are dealing with people. Truly effective leaders realize their success comes from being able to connect with their team members and then leverage their team members' skills to drive their organization's forward. That can only happen when a leader has focused on and developed his/her soft skills (i.e., people skills). Effective leaders and effective team members have developed their emotional intellegence to enhance their workplace effectiveness. It's a soft skill with hard metrics supporting its value.

Jaime D May 12, 2017 12:08 pm

I work for a recruiting firm and we participate in a number of job fairs. It is incredible to see the number of candidates coming through the doors who are unprepared for the event. I adhere to the old adage "You only have one opportunity to make a GREAT first impression". We coach our candidates on embracing the same soft skills mentioned in the article and continue to emphasize them over time with our contract employees who are seeking to make the transition to permanent hire. Many candidates don't realize that these skills can be what separates them from someone seeking the same job with the same experience. I see companies struggling with hiring candidates who don't possess these skills and applaud the efforts to start teaching these skills to our youth as they appear to have been lost somewhere along the way.

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