Don’t Discount Soft Skills – They Are More Important Than Ever

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It's easy to take skills such as empathy for granted, but in the age of automation, it's soft skills that will separate human workers from the robots.
February 4, 2020

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is reshaping the world of work entirely. Robots, automation and AI are taking on more of the processes that were previously carried out by humans. Meanwhile, workers are finding their jobs reshaped by the gig economy, outsourcing and other changes. It’s no surprise that employees are worried (even if most of them consider their own jobs to be safe).

However, two decades into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it’s becoming clear that the robots are not here to replace us, but to help us. More of us will be working with robots – or ‘cobots’, as they are becoming known – and many will find themselves taking on more rewarding tasks as robots handle the rest. In many parts of the world, employees already understand that.

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Humans will be essential for certain tasks, particularly those that require what we think of as ‘soft skills’, such as empathy, adaptability or even the ability to build relationships with small talk. These skills will also be vital for coping with the pace of change in the modern workplace – and yet they are given little space in the curriculum. It’s time we stopped discounting soft skills.

Bridging the skills gap

Teachers are starting to realise that a broader curriculum is necessary to prepare children for the challenges of the modern world. In 2018 the National Union of Teachers in the UK found that members believed a focus on core STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects was too limiting. That has led to schools incorporating more of an arts focus, helping creativity to flourish and breaking down boundaries between pupils who are “arty” or “sciencey”.

That’s an important realisation, but more needs to be done. Earlier this year, Nicolas Schmit, the European Commissioner for jobs, said that Europe’s Youth Unemployment Rate (YUR) was being caused by a skills gap. Overall YUR in the EU was 15.6% in November 2019 and it seems young people are simply not sufficiently qualified for the jobs that are available.

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Meanwhile, in the US, a study from Yale University argued that social-emotional learning, a subset of soft skills affecting resilience and wellbeing, is not taken as seriously by educators as core subjects.

Investing in soft skills

Yet the word coming from businesses is that they need employees who are well-versed in soft skills. The 2020 Global Talent Trends report, for example, highlights employee experience, people analytics, internal recruiting and a multigenerational workforce as being key to the coming year. All of these are underpinned by empathy, the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective.

In a 2017 report, Accenture Strategy suggested that doubling the investment in soft skills training would reduce the percentage of jobs at risk from automation from 10% to 4%. They argued: “Paradoxically, the truly human skills, from leadership to creativity, will remain highly relevant and winning organizations will strike the right balance – leveraging the best of technology to elevate, not eliminate their people. Not only are workers optimistic, but they understand they must learn new skills.”

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Employers are learning about the need for a focus on soft skills, and educators must do the same. Some of the impetus will need to come from government, so that the curriculum can be reshaped. They will need to follow the lead of groups such as Universities Canada, which says Canadian universities are now increasing their emphasis on “human skills”, such as critical thinking and problem solving.

Times of change can be stressful and feel threatening, but people are more likely to be able to take change in their stride if they are sufficiently prepared. It’s time to make sure we’re ready for the next phase of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. As work becomes more robotic, we must learn to become more human.