SBJ/Nov. 14-20, 2016/Opinion

Soft skills are essential to success but hard to find in millennials

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The term “soft skills” is a synonym for what we commonly refer to as “people skills.” These can be summarized as personal attributes that indicate a high level of emotional intelligence. In other words, skills that demonstrate knowing how to conduct oneself in a variety of personal and business situations with a variety of participants. Soft skills are often learned as children and young adults through parental influence and socialization experiences. Good manners, common sense, street smarts, empathy, collaboration, negotiation, teamwork and situational awareness are viewed as very desirable, if not essential, soft skills.

Millennials entering the workforce come with great technical or hard skills, which refers to their knowledge and ability to perform and complete job-related skills. Hard skills also imply a great knowledge of social media channels, new ideas and perspectives and youthful energy. Hard skills determine one’s suitability for a job, and soft skills usually dictate how successful one will be in ascending the ranks of the organization. So much time, energy and emphasis is employed in acquiring and developing hard skills, that there is a lack of attention devoted to developing soft skills and an erosion of what soft skills existed among millennials.

Soft skills, primarily in the communication areas, have deteriorated as we have become increasingly dependent on technology and social media. To sum up this statement consider the following:

1. As technology usage and dependence increases, empathy and understanding decline.

2. As the amount of information expands and grows, attention spans decline.

3. As options broaden, long-term commitment declines.

According to Bruce Tulgan, author of “Bridging the Soft Skills Gap,” managers have the following concerns about their young employees:

“They just don’t know how to behave professionally.”

“They arrive late, leave early, dress inappropriately and spend too much time on social media.”

“They know how to text, but not how to write a memo or a letter.”

“They don’t know what to say and what not to say or how to behave in meetings.”

“They don’t know how to think, learn or communicate without checking a device.”

“They don’t have enough respect for authority and don’t know the first thing about good citizenship, service or teamwork.”


That seems like a damning indictment of young people entering the workforce, but as someone who has educated and prepared them for more than 30 years, I can suggest some strategies and actions for employers.

Review recruiting patterns. Analyze past recruiting efforts and create a strategy that produces the types of candidates who have been successful in the past. It might be particular schools, majors or experiences, but identifying characteristics of successful employees can lead to minimizing recruiting/employment risks.

Improve onboarding activities. Such activities can be expanded to include a panel of employees who have completed their first year of employment and can discuss the challenges of the first year and how they addressed those challenges.

Mentorship programs. Assign each new employee a mentor who has been with the organization less than two years. Millennials are more likely to accept advice from someone they can relate to in terms of age and experience.

“Dress for success” clinic. You can never assume that a young, diverse workforce understands dress codes and expectations. Have the dress for success clinic hosted by a local clothier; instruct it on the expectations relating to appearance in your organization, but let its staff conduct the dress clinic at its location. Having done these in the past with my USF grad students, the clothier is happy to provide the clinic because it is an opportunity to sell clothing and it frequently offers a special purchasing incentive following the presentation.

Coaching/teaching managers. There is a lot to be said for this approach. This style of management is designed to be heavy on intervention, thus correcting mistakes as they arise, and not waiting for an official review where the opportunity to use a “teachable moment” would have passed. This style also demonstrates the importance of the employee and the value of what they are doing.

Improve organizational communication as a way of improving personal communication. The more that information is shared, the more informed and involved employees become. A monthly all-staff luncheon where information is disseminated to everyone while providing a safe forum for Q&A, and even rookie introductions and presentations, is a good beginning.

Personal development plans for every employee. The plan can have a career focus as well as a preparation/development aspect. Soft skills training can be implemented and integrated into a road map for advancement by clearly illustrating what the expectations are for advancement and promotion. A module or a series of modules of soft skills and other recommended educational skills might be created as well. Such modules might include: self-evaluation and awareness; time management; interpersonal communication; critical thinking and problem solving; decision-making; and leadership and followership.

The key is to be proactively addressing the soft skills deficiencies; they won’t be going away any time soon and can become even more acute as new technological forms and innovations emerge.

Individuals wanting to improve their soft skills need to start by building self-awareness about what is going on around them and how they fit their environment. Once they understand their role, they need to become observers, watching how others act in personal and business situations and to begin to market their own behavior accordingly. And while Allen Iverson might not concur, the best way to improve soft skills and how to use them is practice, practice, practice.

Bill Sutton (wsutton1@usf.edu) is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_ImpactU.

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