Why It's Nearly Impossible to Hire Around the Soft Skills Gap

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

There are many sectors of the labor market for which significant education and credentials are not required criteria for employment. This includes the many service or quasi-service jobs in retail, restaurant, cleaning, warehousing, moving, mining, agriculture, to name a few. The available talent pool for these industries offer many “diamond in the rough” employees, but few are fully refined—especially when it comes to soft skills. Yes, you can (and should) poach the most polite cashier, waiter, or janitor from your competition across the street, but that strategy only goes so far. Even your best hires in this sector will require significant onboarding and up-to-speed training not only in the basic tasks of the job, but also in high-priority soft skills.

At the next tier of the skill spectrum is a labor sector that requires substantial technical training. Sometimes this training is provided by a public or private vocational education program, which is often affiliated with local employers. In other cases, employers provide pre-employment training or extensive on-the-job training. These jobs range from construction and assembly and mechanical repair work to bookkeeping to food preparation to sales, and training and education programs are intended to provide “job-ready” employees. What always amazes me about training for these roles is how they focus almost exclusively on the hard skills, and pay only lip service to soft skills training. Then these organizations complain bitterly about a lack of soft skills of these new employees, especially the youngest among them.


At the highest end of the labor market, employment criteria typically includes years of education and formal training. If you are hiring engineers, doctors, nurses, medical technicians, accountants, actuaries, financial advisers, law enforcement officers, teachers, data analysts, code makers, code breakers, enterprise level management, and many other roles for which the supply is far below demand, then you are squarely in the middle of the technical skill gap. It takes time, energy, and money –and a lot of personal investment on the part of the individual employee –to acquire the in-demand skills.

Not surprisingly, employers are in fierce competition for the best talent in this sector. Employers often have few candidates with the requisite hard skills, so they simply cannot rule out potential workers because of seeming gaps in their soft skills. Of course, no matter how highly trained they may be in the hard skills, new employees still require onboarding and basic training on the systems, policies, and practices of their new employer. Again, I am astounded at how little attention is given to soft skills training in the on-boarding and up-to-speed training process.

The bad news punchline of this quick lesson on contemporary labor market dynamics is that you cannot hire your way around the soft skills gap. This means that your organization absolutely must plan to address soft skills in every aspect of its human capital strategy. Here’s the good news: you can hire smarter and give yourself a competitive advantage by shinning a bright light on high-priority soft skills in the recruiting and selection of new employees.

No doubt, you need to hire people who have or can learn the required technical skills. If you are hiring at the high end, you have no choice but to hire those who have acquired the necessary education and training. But there is a limited supply. This doesn’t mean you can ignore soft skills in your hiring. Currently, all the attention in the talent wars seems to be going to the technical skill gap. Yet, every day in our work, the stories managers tell us about “good hires gone bad” and “bad hires gone worse” are about failures in soft skills—not hard skills.

About the Author

Bruce Tulgan is internationally recognized as the leading expert on young people in the workplace and one of the leading experts on leadership and management. Bruce is a best-selling author, an adviser to business leaders all over the world, and a sought-after keynote speaker and management trainer.

Since 1995, Bruce has worked with tens of thousands of leaders and managers in hundreds of organizations ranging from Aetna to Wal-Mart; from the Army to the YMCA.  In recent years, Bruce was named by Management Today as one of the few contemporary figures to stand out as a “management guru” and he was named to the 2009 Thinkers 50 rising star list. On August 13, 2009, Bruce was honored to accept Toastmasters International’s most prestigious honor, the Golden Gavel. This honor is annually presented to a single person who represents excellence in the fields of communication and leadership. Past winners have included Stephen Covey, Zig Ziglar, Deepak Chopra, Tony Robbins, Ken Blanchard, Tom Peters, Art Linkletter, Dr. Joyce Brothers, and Walter Cronkite.

Bruce’s most recent book, The 27 Challenges Managers Face: Step-by-step Solutions to (Nearly) All of Your Management Challenges (Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2014) was published in September, 2014.  He is also the author of the best-seller It’s Okay to Be the Boss (HarperCollins, 2007) and the classic Managing Generation X (W.W. Norton, 2000; first published in 1995). Bruce’s other books include Winning the Talent Wars (W.W. Norton, 2001), which received widespread acclaim from Fortune 500 CEOs and business journalists; the best-seller Fast Feedback (HRD Press, 1998); Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: Managing Generation Y (Jossey-Bass, 2009); Managing the Generation Mix (HRD Press, 2006) and It’s Okay to Manage Your Boss (Jossey-Bass, 2010).   Many of Bruce’s works have been published around the world in foreign editions.

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