Settling for Soft Skills?
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As published in Production Machining and Products Finishing Magazines.  ©2017

It’s a common mantra among business and industry leaders. “What we really need are soft skills. Give me someone who can stay off drugs, come to work every day and take a little bit of direction, and we’ll teach them the hard skills they need to be successful in our business.” Recently, I found myself reflecting a bit on why we have become so quick to dismiss the importance of hard skills in favor of soft skills.

For clarity, soft skills can be likened to personality traits and habits that make an individual an effective team member. A 2016 survey of manufacturers identified soft skills such as remaining drug free, respect, initiative and punctuality as those most sought after by industrial employers. Hard skills, by contrast, are job specific knowledge and experience; the ability to program or operate a CNC machine or PLC, operate a fork lift, drive a semi or weld, for instance.

To generalize, we can place any employee or candidate into one of three categories. The first is comprised of candidates who have both the requisite hard and soft skills. The second includes candidates with desired hard skills, but lacking soft skills and the third category is made up of individuals with few hard skills, but decent soft skills.

It would be quite reasonable to conclude that most employers, given the choice, would select a candidate from the group possessing both the necessary hard and soft skills to fill an open position. It would be equally reasonable to conclude that individuals in the group that exhibits few hard or soft skills would be the least desirable group from which to choose, leaving the group with few hard skills, but appropriate soft skills in the middle.

If individuals in the group possessing both hard and soft skills would be the obvious preference, why then have many employers become so quick to proclaim their desire to fill their ranks with people who solely exhibit soft skills by stating that “we’ll teach you the rest?”

The obvious answer is that the dearth of hard skills in today’s marketplace has led employers to settle for soft skills only, as an employee who stays off drugs, comes to work every day and has the capacity to be led is better than one who doesn’t exhibit these behaviors.

Industrial employers are unaccustomed to settling. We live in a world where on-time delivery in the almost 100-percent range is the norm, parts-per-million rejects are expected to be less than 10 and impeccable service is the standard. Consistently improving efficiency, reducing cost and innovating our processes are hallmarks of our existence. We demand these not just from our team members, but equally from our suppliers and business partners. Providing us with less than ideal performance, quality or service can be grounds for severing a relationship.

Yet when it comes to recruiting team members, we have lulled ourselves into the belief that choosing from a field of candidates incapable of performing the skilled work we require is perfectly all right. Ditch the crack pipe, come to work every day, and we’ll teach you the rest. Have we gone mad?

No, we have not. The truth is we are doing the best we can with what the labor market has to offer. In the absence of recruitable hard skills, we have no choice but to hire the best of that from which we have to choose, and if that means choosing from those with soft skills, we do what we must.

Industrial employers beware, however. Our message that we will enthusiastically employ the candidates with decent soft and few hard skills is being misconstrued. Some public policy makers and educators have reached the erroneous conclusion that all we really want are soft skills. This presents a dangerous environment in which some are using our insistence on the value of soft skills to argue against preparing the workforce of the future with hard skills.

Give me the choice between someone possessing only soft skills and someone who has these, but can also weld, program a CNC or PLC, and so on, and I know which one I will pick. The solution is to pursue initiatives that instill both hard skills and soft skills into the available workforce, not settle for one at the expense of the other.

The next time the temptation comes to tell the world you’ll “settle” for the candidate with soft skills only and teach them the rest, be sure to state just as emphatically that your preference is for hard and soft skills. If only you could find candidates that possess both.



Production Machining and Products Finishing leadership columnist Matt Kirchner serves as President of LAB Midwest, LLC and Managing Director of Profit-360, LLC.  His association with Gardner Media, publisher of both magazines, spans more than a decade.

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