Are soft skills essential for the workplace?

Soft skills are a common feature of job descriptions in today's working world, as many employers recognise their importance to business success.

While technical qualifications and specific work experience will always have their place, a high level of emotional intelligence is vital for workers looking to attain success in both their lives and careers.

Now a major coalition of businesses, policy experts, campaign groups, trade associations and academics are being asked to come together to demonstrate just how important soft skills are to the UK and bring about a whole-scale re-evaluation of their value.

McDonald's has launched the campaign after research it commissioned found these personal attributes are worth £88 billion to the country's economy, while 97 per cent of employers view soft skills as central to commercial success. Among the organisations it will be canvassing are The Work Foundation, Barclays, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Association of Colleges.

What are soft skills?

Soft skills are attributes that improve the quality of an individual's interactions, in turn boosting their career prospects and job performance. They are also applicable across the majority of job roles and industries. For the purposes of the research, five different soft skills were defined - communication and interpersonal skills, teamwork, time- and self-management, decision-making and initiative-taking, and taking responsibility.

The study, which was carried out by Development Economics, found that policymakers and employers are missing a number of warning signs about the lack of support being given to this area. The net result of this is that by 2020, half of employees across all sectors will be held back by their lack of soft skills.

Indeed, three-quarters of businesses already think there is a soft skills gap in the UK's workforce. This highlights a real issue for employers, as finding the right staff is an essential part of any future expansion plans. Therefore, investment could be held back - or taken abroad - if companies are not confident of the skills of the UK's workforce.

Selling your soft skills

Resolving the soft skills gap is a difficult process, but McDonald's feels the first stage is showing the clear economic value attached to these personal attributes. By doing this, a clear incentive is created for both employers and employees to place a bigger focus on soft skills.

The company is asking leading organisations from the worlds of business and education to put forward their ideas for how everyone can improve, support and promote soft skills in the workplace. These recommendations will form the backbone of a new soft skills agenda.

Considering that one in five people are not confident describing their soft skills to employers, while 54 per cent have never included soft skills on their CV, it's clear that many still need to be convinced of just how important these attributes are when looking for their next role.

"Business is clear that developing the right attitudes and attributes in people - such as resilience, respect, enthusiasm and creativity - is just as important as academic or technical skills," stated CBI director for employment and skills Neil Carberry.

"In an ever more competitive jobs market, it is such qualities that will give our young talent a head start and also allow existing employees to progress to higher-skilled, better-paid roles."

Soft skills and HR

The risk attached to not prioritising soft skills can be severe, as not only could they face increased operating costs and problems meeting quality standards, they may also lose business to competitors and face delays in introducing new products or services.

This is why HR departments have such a vital role to play, as they are responsible for aligning the goals of both the employer and employee with regards to these attributes. HR professionals, more so than any other workers, also need to have great soft skills to clearly explain professional development plans.

If you think about what a manager wants from staff, the answer is very often being good at collaborating, capable of working on their own, or someone who shows leadership - all of which are soft skills. Indeed, as people climb the career ladder, there is an even bigger shift in focus towards soft skills, as a person's technical skill set and ability to complete functional tasks becomes less important.

The bottom line is that soft skills matter, so staff and businesses have to look for practical ways to increase their development. Businesses are ultimately made up of people, so people skills will always be needed.