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Mar 8, 2021

Soft and transferable skills are all the rage now. It’s as if organizations are waking up to their importance in building a better workforce.

Of course, most L&D professionals have long known that competencies like resilience, creativity, and collaboration have been vital. So why are they getting so much attention right now? We asked Amanda Van Nuys, group manager at LinkedIn Learning and the editor of LinkedIn’s 2021 Workplace Learning Report. Check out her insights below.

TLNT: Soft and transferable skills are more important now because of hiring constraints. Are there other reasons that make them especially relevant in today’s times? And why do you think companies didn’t pay as much attention to them in the past?

Amanda: The new world of work felt really far off in 2019, but the pandemic changed everything. Now, the new world of work is here, and we’re never going back to the way things were. Millions of jobs have been displaced — and millions of new ones are being created — forcing organizations to quickly reskill their workforce and move people from lower value jobs into higher value jobs. In fact, based on our findings in our recent Workplace Learning Report, the No. 1 priority for L&D pros is upskilling and reskilling.

Our research also shows that a majority of workers are transferring to new roles that they haven’t had experience with in the past. For example, 75% of folks going into sales have no prior adjacent roles. It’s also easy to underestimate how important critical soft skills are, but 92% of hiring professionals report soft skills are just as important as hard skills, particularly when interviews are now completely virtual.

Also, soft skills — such as communication, leadership, and management— are almost always listed in job descriptions. Yet the ones not often seen listed are now some of the most important soft skills today, and they include, like you mentioned, resilience, as well as stress management and emotional intelligence. Because nearly everyone in the global workforce has been touched by all of the changes that happened last year, everyone has needed to focus on building soft skills that help us cope with dynamic environments. Given that 2021 has only brought more change, they will continue to grow in importance over the next months and years.

How can organizations go about measuring transferable skills and soft skills — and dong so objectively?

First, it’s worth mentioning that soft skills take more time to learn than hard skills, but they are the most easily transferable from role to role. Think about it. You can learn how to do an Excel pivot table in 10 minutes, but learning how to be an effective communicator, collaborator, or speaker can take years. You may not need to create pivot tables all of the time, but you do need to lean into your soft skills every day.

We’ve all been looking for a magical way of measuring soft-skill competency levels, but it’s a hard thing to do. There are ways to get a pulse, though. For example, the best way to gauge a manager’s coaching skill is through their teams’ employee voice survey scores and qualitative feedback. Or you can better understand if someone is learning how to become a better collaborator through 360-degree team feedback during performance-review season. 

Which transferable/soft skills are hardest to identify and measure?
Curiosity, which is crucial to innovate and thrive in the new world of work, is tough to measure. Meanwhile, in 2019 and 2020, creativity topped the list of the most in-demand soft skills that companies need, but it ranked dead last when we asked L&D pros which skills employees need most in 2021. Believe me, we all need curiosity now more than ever.

I think of curiosity as the driver to strengthen current skills and learn new ones. Curiosity sparks interest. As Iris Apfel, the fashion icon, says “If you’re not interested, you can’t be interesting.” Curiosity and interest are the engine that keeps learning moving forward. If someone is a continuous learner, then you can be certain that they are curious by nature.

What impact can a focus on soft and transferable skills have on the balance of specialists to generalists within an org? Is there a risk the pendulum will swing too far in one direction and leave a company weakened by too many generalists?

Regardless of whether an employee is a specialist or a generalist, strengthening their soft skills will serve them well. At the end of the day, we’re all people working together, and the employees who have strong people and relationship-building skills will have a much better chance at success than those who don’t.

Companies will always need a good mix of both specialists and generalists, particularly in technology. According to the World Economic Forum report published in October of last year, the rapid acceleration of automation and economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic will shift the division of labor between humans and machines, causing 85 million jobs to be displaced and 97 million new ones to be created by 2025. 

It’s a truth that signals an enormous opportunity for us in L&D and HR. We have the opportunity to help employees grow into roles that are vital in this new era while also making a big impact on the business, the economy, and the world. We are entering the golden age of L&D, and I can’t wait to see how we meet the moment.

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