It’s a lot harder to find soft skills.
Professionals in human resources, business and education say soft skills are declining in the workforce to some degree, particularly among “iGen,” the youngest generation of workers.
Soft skills are behavioral and interpersonal abilities such as the desire to learn and work well as part of a team through communication, collaboration, and problem-solving.
They include being polite and respectful, showing up on time, and taking initiative, all abilities that make for punctual and hard-working employees.
Some say these skills show up in the way an employee presents himself, such as whether he maintains eye contact when communicating.
However, a changing workplace is clouding the issue. Technology brings different methods for communication and changes to the working environment, and many younger workers are eager to embrace these changes. Racial and cultural differences, plus a growing concern for the importance of social issues and causes, also play a role in determining and shaping what soft skills are valuable in the workforce today.
The lack of soft skills is more pronounced now because unemployment is so low, said Randy Peers, president and CEO of Greater Reading Chamber Alliance.
“Employers are really scrambling to step up,” Peers said. “They are looking at populations they weren’t tapping into. I think a lot of what employees lament about is the decline in work ethic.”
Employees in any industry who have the basic work ethic can gain an edge if they also have skills in basic math and writing, positive customer service, public speaking and presentation, critical thinking and conflict resolution, he said.
“Every employee, if they can master these critical competencies, they can get an edge in the workplace,” Peers said. “I think employers will respond positively to that.”
The workplace today presents several challenges for those at the executive level, many of whom are leaders of Generation Xers and baby boomers.
At the same time, younger workers are entering the workforce and their own perceptions may be at odds with those of older generations.
While there are always differences among people from other generations, these differences appear more prevalent today.
In focusing on communication skills, there are a number of challenges in today’s workplace, said Deirdre Kamber Todd, managing partner of The Kamber Law Group in Upper Macungie Township. Older workers may have trouble relating to younger workers and vice versa, she said.
That allows for skewed and distorted perceptions of the soft skills that may be beneficial in today’s workplace.
HAPPINESS IS PARAMOUNT
What the newest generation of workers finds more rewarding is different from those of the prior generation, the millennials, according to Kurt Adam, director of career and technical education at Lehigh Career & Technical Institute in Schnecksville
Described as iGens – employees born in 1996 or later – today’s youngest workers believe that finding a job they are happy in is more important than making a lot of money, Adam said.
“They are connected,” he said. “They live on their phone. Because of texting, they don’t know how to talk. They struggle with shaking hands, holding a conversation. Employers have to think differently in how to communicate with them.”
Rather than being competitive with each other, iGen workers tend to be more concerned with social and world issues, according to Adam. This notion is different from the idea of a traditional career trajectory where one focuses on moving up the ladder of success.
“They are not that competitive,” Adam said. “If I was an employer, that would be hard for me.”
From sending out tweets to working remotely via Skype, technology has altered the workplace in ways that may have been unheard of two decades ago, and this naturally affects the way people communicate.
“Social media alone has changed the landscape for interpersonal skills,” Kamber Todd said. “They [younger workers] simply don’t have the same experiences in face-to-face communication. Baby boomers who are in charge may not understand that Facebook and YouTube might be a vital tool for doing their job.”
The younger generation may not really be accustomed to face-to-face interaction, she added.
SPEAKING THROUGH TECHNOLOGY
With technology, younger applicants are so used to speaking through the world of social media that they tend to do better at that than face-to-face conversation, Kamber Todd said.
In some cases, sending a text might be more efficient, even in the workplace, rather than a phone call, she said.
For example, a text to a client confirming something could be more efficient than calling the person on the phone, only to leave a message and often wait longer for a response.
Young workers also may be more comfortable using social media to not only communicate but also as a marketing tool that can reach more people much faster.
TEAMS OF ONE
Understanding the skill sets and realizing there are many ways to do many jobs is something employers will have to consider, Kamber Todd said. The same soft skills that were required in business 20 years ago may not be the same now, she said.
The perception of being part of the team, long a staple of the working world and what many think of as an essential soft skill, may not be entirely required by businesses today.
“Our newest generations are teams of one,” Kamber Todd said.
The increased ability for people to work from home means that more employees can often perform their work perfectly fine without physically interacting with others.
ROLE OF CULTURE
Often, a person’s race and ethnicity bring cultural differences into the equation, said Kamber Todd, the legislative and diversity chairperson of the Lehigh Valley Chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management.
While failing to maintain eye contact is generally seen as being disrespectful, particularly among Caucasians, people from other cultural backgrounds see it as offensive to maintain eye contact when talking.
It’s an action that can be seen as showing aggression or challenging someone, she added.
EMBEDDED IN CURRICULUM
“There is a gap in understanding what the strengths are of the younger generation,” Kamber Todd said. “If interpersonal skills are a key skill set, employers need to teach those skills. I think they can be taught.”
Employers have to be mindful of how this generation looks at things and they have to evolve with the younger employees that are coming to them, Adam said.
The lack of soft skills is a problem in the workforce but students at Lehigh County Technical School are prepared to enter the working world and learn the soft skills they need to succeed in business, Adam said.
Nearly 100 percent of career centers/technical schools have soft skills embedded in the curriculum, Adam said.
LCTI offers opportunities for business and industry executives to visit to interview students.
For example, with LCTI’s auto technician program, auto dealerships in Lehigh County conduct interviews with about 20 to 25 students for internship positions, Adam said.
Even companies that do mock interviews with students at the technical school help them gain practice in developing interviewing and resume-writing skills.
“The majority of our programs do that,” Adam said. “All of our kids get exposed to how to talk to people, how to write a resume.”
If school officials embed these core competencies in education or job training, employers will have a better workforce overall, Peers said.
Prior to joining the Greater Reading Chamber, Peers operated a program for Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow, a nonprofit job-training agency in Brooklyn, N.Y., that helps disconnected youth – those not in school and not working – get back on track.
The disconnected youth population in Berks County is between 3,000 and 5,000, according to data from the Berks County Workforce Development Board, showing a real need for helping these young people become successful in the workplace.
“These are ones who can gravitate toward the trades, manufacturing,” Peers said.
“Most employers would love to see more of these workers who have mastered these critical competencies.”
A NEW WORLD
Are employers up to the challenge of rethinking the workplace?
“Employers must challenge themselves and see whether the essential functions they thought were relevant 20 years ago are the same,” Kamber Todd said. “You can draw the line between texting and Twitter. Sometimes, that short message is exactly what’s called for.”
Employers need to work within the world everyone lives in, she said.
“I think it’s a challenge on both sides,” Kamber Todd said. “Everybody needs to think about it and assess where we are.”