Closing the skills gap

Skills in today’s workplace come in two varieties: hard skills and soft skills.

Michael Boyd

Hard skills are fundamental to the production of the good or service that a company produces. They require equipment, materials and physical activity. Welding, word processing, forklift operations, plumbing and carpentry are hard skills.

They are easily observed and measured.

Soft skills are much more difficult to define and measure — they are the interpersonal or “people” skills. They help employees to interact successfully with others in the workplace. In any industry, employees must interact with co-workers, vendors and customers for the organization to succeed. Competition in the marketplace today is fast paced and fierce.

Companies and organizations faced with declining sales and profit, lower productivity, higher employee turnover, and declining customer retention may have a soft-skills gap. To succeed and remain competitive, proactive organizations close the gap by identifying the soft skills most crucial to achieving their business goals. There are a variety of soft skills. Four examples common to almost every industry include communications, time management, collaboration and teamwork.

Communication is the most important of all soft skills. The ability to communicate through the written and spoken word is essential in every industry. The product or service is what draws customers and clients to a business. The ability of the employees to communicate effectively is what keeps the customer. Employees who communicate effectively can resolve disputes, collaborate with each other and build cohesiveness within the workplace team.

Time management is increasingly important in today’s workplace. Technological advances demand a higher level of productivity and efficiency. Training employees to set priorities and adapt to changing workplace conditions is essential for maximizing output.

Collaboration is the skill of sharing knowledge and experience in developing solutions to workplace issues. It requires trust and support in order to be effective. The result is less conflict.

Teamwork is the soft skill that allows employees who differ in seniority, gender, ethnicity and race to identify the workplace goals they share. It promotes cooperation, reduces workplace stress and creates a sense of unity.

The good news is that each of these soft skills can be taught. There are many online as well as face-to-face training options available to increase soft skills mastery.

Why then does the soft skills gap exist?

One reason is the lack of funding. Unless an organization budgets in advance for training, it is often difficult to find the money at the time training is needed and or available, especially if the organization is experiencing revenue shortfalls.

A second reason is the difficulty in measuring a direct return on soft skills training. Unlike technical training, where increased productivity can be measured, “improved communication” is subjective. Teamwork may be stronger and conflict reduced, but the ROI for soft skills training does not appear on the operating statement.

Finally, it is difficult for many companies to take employees away from the workplace to attend training. Shift work, short staffing and union agreements all present barriers for allowing workers to leave their positions to attend training that might not result in measurable improvement.

The competitive pressures in today’s workplace are intensifying. Margins are thinner and rapid technological changes create demands to do more with less. Companies that are able to identify and close the skills gap increase their chances for future success.

Michael Boyd is the program manager for Business and Workforce Development at Hagerstown Community College. He can be reached at mdboyd@hagerstowncc.edu or 240-500-2490.