Chamber Column: Our changing workplaces and the demand for soft skills

Internationally, many of the jobs that currently exist are expected to be taken over by artificial intelligence within little more than a decade. Some of the industries which can expect to be affected include retail sales, construction, medical testing and dispensing, data entry and even sports journalism.

Skills are now considered competitive currency. With single skill set jobs on the decline, employers are looking for a variety of hard and soft skills to meet the demands of the changing market and ensure that their companies remain competitive. These in-demand skills range from competence in data analytics and social media, to creativity and problem solving. Hard skills are those you acquire through formal education and training – proficiency that can be defined, taught and measured, such as mathematics, writing and software use. Soft skills, on the other hand, are harder to define and include things like communication, leadership and teamwork. Basically, they are people skills.

Although job seekers are often led to believe that they have an advantage if they have attended prestigious educational institutions or can present evidence of academic achievement, the demand for candidates who possess soft skills is increasing. Companies want people who are able to communicate effectively, use their initiative and work as part of a team.

Management practitioners are familiar with the adage that you don’t manage things, you manage people. Technology has redefined and transformed the functions of both management and staff, so that today, managers are often expected to perform duties like typing their own letters and answering phones. Similarly, staff may be subjected to less routine supervision; instead, they are expected to use their creativity and skills to get the job done.

Workplaces have become interpersonal. The ability to build and manage workplace relationships is a very important soft skill. Imagine a simple scenario: you have to submit a report, but the statistics department has more pressing priorities. You will be very close to the wire; there isn’t much you can do but wait. While you appeal to your colleague in the statistics department (whom you helped out a few months ago) to do you a favour, you work on your other deliverables. In the process, you use many soft skills – communication, collaboration, persuasion, patience, adaptability, organisation, multitasking and time management.

Soft skills have long been overlooked, but they are more difficult to develop than hard skills and can often make the difference in getting the job done. Soft skills, closely linked to a person’s character, can only be cultivated through conscious effort and committed practice. Emotional intelligence, which encompasses soft skills, has been found to be a better predicator of success among executives than IQ or experience – but to acquire it, you must be willing to un-learn many of the things you have come to know and rebuild with new habits.

Technology has not only revolutionised the workplace, it has irreversibly changed the marketplace. The internet and smartphones have made shopping easier than ever before, yet purchasing has become more impersonal. In a world of seemingly endless choices, personal interactions have taken on a new hue. Delighting your customer has never been so important, and soft skills are what keep customers coming back.

It may seem ironic, but technologies like automation and artificial intelligence will result in a higher demand for soft skills. This does not mean that hard skills are less in demand; rather, it points to an evening of the scales between the two. Each complements the other.


"Chamber Column: Our changing workplaces and the demand for soft skills"

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