The Fourth Industrial Revolution is happening now. It is a new era where the rule book is ripped up and pioneering technologies disrupt the status quo. From blockchain development and 5G connectivity to renewable energy systems, there are fresh demands in our workplaces. These demands are being met by fresh-faced university graduates – among others – with the right skills to match employer needs.
A recent LinkedIn survey has found that employers’ hard skill demands change at a faster pace than ever due to swift technological advancements. For example, the survey uncovered that blockchain is the top-rated hard skill at the moment and was nowhere near the most demanded skills by recruiters one year ago.
Yet, recruiters are not only seeking people with purpose-learned skills to provide new technology revolutions and solutions. They also require teams of staff with exceptional soft skills. If you are seeking a new role or entering the job market for the first time, you need to know the difference between hard and soft skills.
Read on to uncover their differences, examples of these skills, what current research tells us – and how to effectively improve your own hard and soft skills.
What Are Hard Skills?
The modern CV usually focuses on hard skills because these are what most of us put a lot of time in acquiring or developing. Hard skills must be learned, usually through online/university courses, and are often geared towards a specific career. For example, learning to code will help you get a career in technology, such as cybersecurity or big data.
If you are unsure if a skill is classed as a hard skill, ask yourself these two questions:
- Could the skill be taught to another person with a high success rate?
- Can you measure the competence of the skill? (e.g. through course levels)
Another way to identify hard skills is by asking if you were born with the skill. Hard skills have to be learned and are never something that we are born with. However, we are not always born with soft skills either – more on this difference can be found below.
Not everyone will develop hard skills to benefit their careers. Some hard skills help people with their hobbies and interests rather than their professional life. Yet, most hard skills that people have will leverage their career because they take time to master and have to be paid for, thus come with a financial commitment.
What Are Soft Skills?
It is relatively easy to evidence our hard skills. We can show prospective employers our course certificates or a portfolio of our work that was only possible due to the hard skills we obtained. Soft skills are a different type of skill that are not as easy to evidence to others.
Soft skills are those skills which are not specific to a certain job and its responsibilities. These skills may help people succeed in a range of jobs from different industries. A good example is leadership. A worker in a marketing team may need to lead a group to succeed on a Facebook advertising project, while a construction worker may also need to show good leadership when trying to build a new home with many different workers and businesses.
These skills can somewhat be learned through training and courses – just like hard skills – but it is more common for them to be part of an individual’s fundamental personality, and then enhanced through working experiences. In that regard, people can be born with soft skills to a degree, unlike hard skills which must be learned.
Soft skills also differ from hard skills because the former is not measurable. Even though we may be able to see that one person has better leadership qualities than another person, it is difficult to say by how much they are better at leadership. This is because soft skills cannot be measured compared to a skill like coding. A coder may have a qualification that recognises a set number of coding capabilities, which enables the hard skill to be measured with some degree of accuracy.
Soft skills are beneficial in working environments, but they are useful in day-to-day social interactions as well.
Other Examples of Hard Skills
Coding is just one example of a hard skill, but there are so many other examples from an array of industries. Here are some common hard skills that you may have:
- Foreign language proficiency
- Blockchain development
- Tiling and plastering
- Fast keyboard typing
- Administration tasks (bookkeeping, data input etc.)
- SEO copywriting
- First aid
- Taking blood samples
Notice that none of these skills is something you are born with, but you would have usually learned them through education, training and courses.
Other Examples of Soft Skills
There are arguably fewer types of soft skills than hard skills due to these skills not being career-centric. Here are some common types of soft skills:
- Good manners
- Conflict resolution
To some degree, these skills are also learned or enhanced through experience and training. However, some people can be born with soft skills or have personalities that leverage their soft skills naturally.
Hard Skills vs Soft Skills
Hard skills and soft skills are both valuable when seeking a job. Typically, hard skills are the prerequisites for getting a job interview. They are the skills which employers will look for on job applications to make a shortlist of suitable candidates. Those candidates will then be interviewed, and (examples of) their soft skills may set them apart from the competition. Therefore, both types of skills are important– but what does the research say?
One study that looked at business graduates found that recruiters valued soft skills higher than academic performance. As a result, they recommended that universities should start offering courses designed to improve soft skills too. Alternatively, these courses should emphasise the importance of soft skills more.
This theory has support from further scientific research. Another study stressed the need for universities to target the development of soft skills because they are just as valuable as hard skills. The researchers made this recommendation based on results that suggest hard skills are optimised by advanced soft skills. The same study found that soft skills can increase earnings by almost the same percentage as hard skills (just below 9%).
It may be that as more people attend universities, recruiters do not struggle to find professionals with the right hard skills and therefore value soft skills to set applicants apart from each other. Thus, soft skills are not ‘better’ than hard skills, but they could make the difference when seeking a career.
Similarly, having a workforce that works together harmoniously is one strategy to mitigate staff turnover. By having emotionally intelligent individuals that can communicate effectively, the workplace becomes a happier place. Workers that are less likely to leave their position can save businesses on recruitment costs and resources if they needed to rehire.
Considering the cost of a bad hire is estimated to be 30% of the worker’s first year annual salary, soft skills can really save your business significant money over the long term.
How Can You Gain More Hard Skills?
Hard skills are teachable, which means you can acquire hard skills through training courses. These courses may be accessed through your current job, at a college or university, or via the internet. If you use online courses to acquire new hard skills, it is important that the course is recognised by employers.
Sometimes hard skills can be obtained and developed in cost-effective ways, such as attending a course paid for by your employer or by using free online courses. University courses may develop hard skills extensively through a range of modules. These number of specialist hard skills we can attain will be limited by our amount of free time, but more often than not, due to financial restrictions limiting the number of courses we can enrol onto.
This is why it is crucial that an individual will identify the hard skills that will benefit their targeted career and are worth the time, effort and money. The decision is usually given to us at an early age when we choose our education path. However, changing careers by achieving new hard skills is possible.
How Can You Gain More Soft Skills?
Soft skills are best obtained through real-life experiences. Whether it is teamwork, emotional intelligence, communication or something else, all of these skills are developed when we are around other people. This can happen at work and in our personal lives.
As experiences stack up, these skills will develop to some degree. How much they develop will depend on your personality, but also on our willingness to reflect and improve. Evaluating how we use our soft skills is essential to development. Some people choose to record experiences and set themselves goals to handle situations differently next time they arise. They may ask themselves to be more patient, communicate clearer or be more decisive.
Although hard skills are teachable, soft skills can be learned to some extent. This is why there are courses available that specialise in soft skills. Although these are not the priority subject matter of university courses, there are online courses that are geared towards soft skill development. You may also be enrolled on soft skill courses through your employer. These courses tend to involve classroom-based activities with other people and possibly guest speakers.
Hard Skills and Soft Skills: The key takeaways
- We are not born with hard skills, but they can be taught with a great deal of success via structured learning.
- Soft skills are inherent to our personalities, but they can be developed through working experiences, and sometimes, through online courses and staff training.
- Hard skills are measurable while soft skills are not.
- The most demanded hard skills change rapidly and often in line with technological advancements.
- Research suggests that recruiters will value soft skills just as much – if not more – than hard skills.
- This may be because candidates with the right hard skills are plentiful, but candidates with a combination of suitable hard and soft skills are not as easy to find.
- Research suggests that soft skills will increase earning potential at the same rate as hard skills.
- Obtaining hard skills is usually done through structured online learning, workplace courses and college/university courses.
- Developing soft skills is somewhat dependent upon personality but can be improved through experiences and self-reflection.
The bottom line is if you are looking for a new career, do not rely on hard skills alone to get the job or secure a promotion.
Balcar, J. (2016). Is It Better To Invest In Hard Or Soft Skills? The Economic and Labour Relations Review. 27(4), pp. 453–470.
Jones, M, Baldi C, Phillips C & Waikar A. (2017). The Hard Truth About Soft Skills: What recruiters look for in business graduates. College Student Journal, 50(3), pp. 422-428.