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People Skills Still Matter in the Digital Age

August 15, 2022


As talk of another economic recession begins to creep into everyday conversations, jobs sustainability is also on many people’s minds. Which jobs will remain if there is an economic downturn? What jobs will be available in the future? Which jobs will be eliminated by artificial intelligence (AI) and automation? We all know the world is getting more technical. As a result, there are good reasons to believe that people well-versed in technology will generally fare better financially than those who aren’t. On the other hand, employers lament the fact that even highly-educated people seem to be lacking people skills (sometime referred to as soft skills).


Joanna Venator (@JoannaVenator), a former Senior Research Assistant at Brookings, and Richard V. Reeves (@RichardvReeves), a Senior Fellow at Brookings, explain, “It is hard to succeed in life without skills in reading and math, but they are not the only ones that count or the only ones children learn in school.”[1] They cite a Pew Research Center survey that tried to determine the importance of so-called “soft skills” for succeeding in life. “Pew asked a national sample of adults to pick select skills from a list of ten, which ‘are most important for children to get ahead in the world today.’ Reading and math are considered important by most, which is no surprise. But ‘soft’ skills such as communication and teamwork were also chosen by many.” In fact, communication was the highest ranked skill — selected by 90% of participants. Although that study was conducted over half-a-dozen years ago, the importance of soft skills has not diminished.


The Importance of Soft Skills


Nearly a decade ago, Ira Wolfe (@HireAuthority), an employment specialist, reported that a study by the U.S. Department of Labor concluded, “65 percent of today’s schoolchildren will eventually be employed in jobs that have yet to be created.”[2] I suspect that conclusion remains as true today as it was then. What is also true is that, regardless of the types of technical skills young people will need to fill those yet-to-be-created jobs, soft skills will be just as important for those jobs as they are for today’s jobs. Business writer Nikki Dale observes, “We all use interpersonal skills/competencies (also known as people skills) every day. When it comes to employment or your job search, interpersonal skills are almost as important as technical skills/hard skills and knowledge, education and experience for success.”[3] As an employer, I would not have used the modifier “almost.” People skills are as important has other skills.


Dealing or interacting with other people is an essential activity in most organizations. Individuals with great people skills have a better chance of getting promoted. A couple of years ago, an article in The Economist noted, “Since 1983 the number of managers and administrators in the American workforce has more than doubled, while employment in other occupations has gone up by only 44%.”[3] The article also cited a survey by the Harvard Business Review that found employees “spent an average 27% of their time on bureaucratic chores, such as writing reports or documenting compliance. The result of all this paperwork, say the authors, is a corporate organization that promotes conformity and dulls enterprise: ‘it wedges people into narrow roles, stymies personal growth and treats human beings as mere resources.'” In many companies, those bureaucratic chores are being automated freeing employees to concentrate on more fulfilling activities. Automation technologies, like robotic process automation (RPA), are characterized as technologies that take the robot out of the human. Relieved of mundane tasks, humans have more time to apply their people skills.


Of course, some people worry that automation will replace them, not simply take over their mundane tasks. Tech writer Madhurjya Chowdhury explains, however, “While certain talents, such as dull and repetitive jobs like data entry, maybe mechanized, interpersonal skills cannot.”[4] He believes those skills include: Creativity; collaboration and teamwork; interpersonal communication skills; critical thinking/problem-solving; empathy; adaptability and flexibility; moral awareness; and leadership skills. Journalist Morgan Smith (@thewordsmithm) reports that two of those skills (communication and problem-solving) are highly sought after by most firms.[5] She elaborates: “Frequent, clear communication is a critical skill recruiters are looking for in job candidates, especially as many companies continue remote or hybrid work. … Effective communication can include asking detailed questions during meetings, providing feedback or leading presentations. … Problem-solving skills have become essential in a work environment where communication and collaboration can feel fragmented. … This could include working with a difficult client, helping with a staffing shortage or resolving a technical issue.”


Developing Soft Skills


McKinsey & Company analysts assert, “Social, emotional, and technological skills are becoming more crucial as intelligent machines take over more physical, repetitive, and basic cognitive tasks. But HR professionals report difficulty recruiting candidates who have the necessary soft skills for an automating world.”[6] They go on to note that the three most difficult skills for job recruiters to find in job candidates are: Problem solving, critical thinking, innovation and creativity skills; the ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity; and communication skills. Those are three excellent areas for people to concentrate on; however, there are other skills worth working on as well. Dale provides a list of skills (some of which have been previously mentioned) that you might want to consider:


1) Communication skills
2) Leadership/management skills
3) Decision-making skills
4) Teamwork skills
5) Relationship management skills
6) Listening skills
7) Conflict management skills


Of course, technical (or hard) skills still matter as well. Daniel Levies, Developmental Editor at Wikijobs, pointed me to great article entitled “15 Technical Skills Employers Look For in 2022.”[8] It’s worth a read.


Concluding Thoughts


Dale concludes, “The importance of interpersonal skills in the workplace should not be underestimated. Without interpersonal skills, everyday business would be very difficult, since almost all aspects of work involve communication, even if you work alone most of the time.” Analysts from the ToolsGroup add, “In the coming years, professionals who can communicate business priorities, simplify complex data, and contribute to negotiations will be increasingly valuable.”[7] For companies looking to improve the soft skills of their employees, McKinsey analysts suggest a two-pronged approach. First, “structure interviews to elicit work-life details and experiences that have made candidates who they are today.” Second, “teach soft skills through employee learning journeys that blend training, digital courses, job aids, and peer coaching.” Some things may become obsolescent as the business environment changes; however, soft skills aren’t becoming anachronistic.


[1] Joanna Venator and Richard V. Reeves, “Building the soft skills for success,” The Brookings Institution, 18 March 2015.
[2] Ira Wolfe, “65 Percent of Today’s Students Will Be Employed in Jobs That Don’t Exist Yet,” Success Performance Solutions, 26 August 2013.
[3] Staff, “What happens when companies devolve power,” The Economist, 10 October 2020.
[4] Madhurjya Chowdhury, “8 Skills that Can’t Be Replace by Robots and Automation,” Analytics Insight, 27 May 2022.
[5] Morgan Smith, “The top 3 skills employers are looking for in 2022, according to career experts,” CNBC, 21 January 2022.
[6] Staff, “Soft skills for a hard world,” McKinsey Quarterly, January 2022.
[7] J. Brantly, “Essential Skills to Secure Your Place in a Digital Supply Chain Organization,” ToolsGroup Blog, 8 February 2021.
[8] Nikki Dale, “15 Technical Skills Employers Look For in 2022,” Wikijobs, 3 August 2022.

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