Soft skills or hard skills: Which is the future of work?

Soft skills or hard skills: Which is the future of work?

When is Java better than creativity?

This is not the setup to some strange riddle but instead a reflection on how we categorize our worth for an employer. We’re all used to reviewing resumes with a list of skills, both hard (such as JavaScript or Adobe Creative Suite) and soft (teamwork, communication). But which are most important? How do we prioritize these lists? And what do they have to do with starting a new business?

A lot, as it turns out. Because as the types of jobs and technologies continue to evolve, the future of work in general is going to change how we prepare for it.

The hard value of soft skills

Hard skills are straight-forward: They’re usually a list of software programs you know well or online tools you can navigate. But softer skills are a little more fluid—and therefore much more difficult to quantify. They’re also becoming even more valued.

The World Economic Forum recently interviewed executives from hundreds of global employers and compiled a list of the top 10 “employer-demanded skills” for the years ahead. Here’s the list:

  1. Complex problem-solving
  2. Critical thinking
  3. Creativity
  4. People management
  5. Coordinating with others
  6. Emotional intelligence
  7. Judgment and decision-making
  8. Service orientation
  9. Negotiation
  10. Cognitive flexibility

Now, it’s no secret that technology jobs dominate the headlines, and the employment trend is definitely moving that way. It may surprise you, then, to see so many “soft” skills in this top 10 list. But the employers who were interviewed for the study replied that the more technical skills – such as teaching someone how to use Trello, for example – can often be taught on the job. Creativity, however, is one of those have-it-or-you-don’t type of traits.

This is an important finding because so many of these attributes we find in our top entrepreneurs and leaders of emerging businesses. Indeed, I would argue an entrepreneur will surely fail if he or she is lacking too many of these top traits. Gary Schoeniger, Founder of the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative and whose work has been embraced by the Kauffman Foundation, goes further:

“Entrepreneurship is more than an academic discipline and reaches far beyond the concept of traditional business creation and small business management. Entrepreneurship is a mindset; a framework for thinking and acting that can empower anyone to succeed. It is a mindset that can empower ordinary people to accomplish the extraordinary.”

Balance is key

The timing of the WEF report is fascinating, especially as we embrace the rise of automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence—all designed to unburden humans of rote, repetitive tasks that have become such a large part of any job.

In fact, Target Hill Capital is involved with many technology-based companies who are banking on their ability to find innovative ways to make our lives easier (and often eliminate some level of human involvement).

However, any entrepreneur or business leader can recognize there’s no replacement for those skills that not only make you a more effective founder but also a more interesting person. If anything, these new feats of automation are teaching us that it’s precisely those “human” traits and soft skills that make us so valuable to both an employer and our customer base.

For any of us to succeed, we’ll need to rethink how we approach the future of work in the years to come. Joseph E. Aoun, author of “Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence,” writes that the pivot needs to begin before we even enter the work force:

“A robot-proof model of higher education is not concerned solely with topping up students’ minds with high-octane facts. Rather, it refits their mental engines, calibrating them with a creative mindset and the mental elasticity to invent, discover, or produce something society deems valuable.”

Laura Wilcox argues in Forbes that instead of prioritizing certain skills over another, we should view them as complementary:

“We should see hard and soft skills as working in concert with one another. Emotional intelligence bolsters the hard skills, helping us think more creatively about how best to leverage our technical chops.”

For any engineer or artist who decides to take the leap as an entrepreneur, you know the important of juggling these hard and soft skills (or bringing in help when you need it). Even more important is the need to emphasize that balance as we hire and grow our companies.

So, my riddle above was actually a trick question—looks like you need them both.

Marshall Dougherty is a partner of Target Hill Capital, a venture capital firm dedicated to building scalable growth companies and investment opportunities backed by unmatched due diligence to exceed VC success rates and investor IRR. Share your thoughts on Facebook, Twitter or on LinkedIn.

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