What are Soft Skills and Why are They Important in the Workplace?
This article was updated on November 16, 2023, with additional contributions by Mars Girolimon.
Landing your next — or first — great job is all about marketing yourself to employers. You need to develop the skills employers are looking for and be able to showcase those hard-earned skills to get the new career or promotion you want.
So what are employers looking for? What are the most marketable skills? Luckily, employers are talking, and what they’re talking about is less about job-specific knowledge, technical knowledge or extensive experience with complicated computer programs or models. They want leaders, communicators and critical thinkers.
What are Soft vs. Hard Skills?
In contrast to "hard" or technical skills that are applicable to specific roles — like coding, data analysis or social media management — soft skills are transferrable abilities that can be utilized in various settings. These skills are often sought-after for their universal appeal, but they might be more important now than ever before.
In the midst of various changes in the workplace and workforce, including the implementation of artificial intelligence across many industries, the value of a human touch is growing, too. While certain positions may eventually be replaced by artificial intelligence, developing your soft skills can help "future-proof" your career and livelihood, according to Fast Company.
What are Examples of Soft Skills?
LinkedIn recently published a list of the most in-demand skills employers look for when recruiting, and many were human-focused skills. A few of the most in-demand skills noted by LinkedIn include:
- Analytical skills
- Customer service
Indeed's career guide listed a few other traits employers look for in job candidates, such as:
- Problem-solving skills
- Strong work ethic
Referencing traits like these while applying for work can help signal your professionalism and emotional intelligence. It can also demonstrate your values and show that you care about how your behavior impacts others. For example, as the importance of empathy in the workplace is becoming more widely discussed, you might decide to highlight your ability to act with empathy if that's one of your strengths.
Showcasing these abilities on your resume or your CV can help you stand out when applying for a job and demonstrate that you'll be easy to work with.
What are the Five Core Soft Skills?
There are many valuable skills — soft or hard — that you can develop for your career growth. But according to Sonja Moffett, a career engagement partner at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), there are a few to focus on.
In addition to building and facilitating relationships with employers, Moffett develops experiential learning opportunities for students. She's also an adjunct business instructor at SNHU, teaching courses in management and human resources.
"When we think about the impact soft skills, also known as people skills, has on career readiness, we rely heavily on the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE)," Moffett said.
She noted there are eight skills that NACE refers to as the core competencies for career readiness. "Of those, five are directly correlative to soft skills that employers are seeking in addition to education and experience," she said.
According to Moffett, these five skills are:
- Critical thinking
If you're looking to enhance your marketability, developing these traits could be a good way to start.
How to Develop Marketable Soft Skills
Here's how you can start building your skill set, starting with the five core soft skills Moffett described:
- Communication – Being able to clearly and concisely communicate with other people in your company is the only way to minimize mistakes and inefficiencies that come from miscommunication. It defines how the people around you perceive you and therefore your relationship with them.
- Critical Thinking – Those who practice critical thinking learn to make informed and thoughtful decisions. According to Forbes, you can improve your critical thinking abilities by vetting your sources, considering varied perspectives, questioning your biases and practicing active listening skills.
- Leadership – You can develop your leadership qualities by focusing on authenticity, relationship-building, self-awareness and empowering others. While essential for managers, these abilities can help you lead from your seat regardless of your job title.
- Teamwork – It’s likely that no matter what profession you’re in, you will need to collaborate with other people to solve problems and accomplish projects.
- Professionalism — According to BetterUp, a virtual coaching platform, you can work on your professionalism by practicing inclusion, setting an example for others and behaving with integrity in all of your interactions.
You can also work to improve some other commonly mentioned soft skills, including:
- Organization – Even if you're technically proficient in your field, you'll face challenges if you can't organize your time, space and workload. A major part of being organized is staying on top of your goals, duties and expected deliverables. Experiment with different organizational systems — from those as simple as a to-do list on a notepad to one of the many tools available online — to find what works best for you and your personality type.
- Time Management – Let’s face it; some of us are procrastinators. Everyone puts off unpleasant or difficult tasks at least some of the time. If you need help managing your time, there are plenty of simple steps you can practice — and hopefully internalize — to become more efficient.
- Writing – In your work, you'll need to create communications, including emails, presentation slides and reports, and these have to be easily understood by others. While practice is important for improving this soft skill, it can also be helpful to receive outside assistance.
Nicholas Botto is the director of career services at SNHU. He and his team work with students each day to help them navigate their career searches and professional journeys. In surveying the job market landscape, he's seeing many employers seeking applicants who are enthusiastic, personable and possess a strong work ethic, critical thinking skills and leadership skills.
According to Botto, one way to develop your soft skills and demonstrate them to potential employers is to practice them in the real world. "We tell our students to find opportunities to step out of their comfort zones," he said. "This may include volunteering, participating in experiential learning opportunities, and contributing to community service opportunities."
He noted that SNHU's career team frequently encourages students to seek out hands-on experiences they can add to their resumes.
Building Skills Through General Education
Many colleges and universities offer general education degree programs that focus on strengthening skills like critical thinking and communication while through courses like English composition, quantitative reasoning, history and natural science. While these courses lead to a bachelor's degree in general studies, they can also help you develop a broad base of soft skills and may offer concentrations in more specific areas, including business, psychology, creative writing and more.
You’ll notice a general education component to every degree program, required courses that provide a well-rounded overall experience and allow graduates to develop soft skills as well as hone in on courses pertinent to a specific area of focus.
After earning her bachelor's in general studies online from SNHU, Lynn Redmond '23 said her education helped her develop crucial abilities.
"This degree provided me with the soft skills that are essential to be a great leader," she said. "My communications, technical writing and research knowledge flourished because of this degree."
You can develop these skills by attending college on campus or by earning an online degree at your own pace while submitting assignments each week.
Find Your Program
Experiential Learning Opportunities to Enhance Your Skill Set
According to Moffett, many colleges offer a variety of experiential learning opportunities that can help to develop these human-focused skills. She pointed to the game design challenge at SNHU as an example. In this challenge, students in SNHU's online game art degree program and creative writing degree program are selected to come together and create a video game.
"Like the first weeks on a new job, these students have to work with people they have never met before to achieve the goal here," Moffett said. "They develop communication skills, teamwork, critical thinking skills, thought leadership and professionalism."
She noted a few ways for students to improve these skills while studying other subjects, too. For example, the HeART challenge provides real world training for healthcare professionals, and students in STEM programs can develop these skills in the AWS Jam, a cloud computing competition.
Moffett said SNHU also offers embedded learning opportunities for students to further these abilities through their coursework. In the Human Resources (HR) degree course, "Creating the Employee Experience," she noted students learn competencies to prepare them to work in the field of HR.
"They have case studies and scenarios where they have to consult with managers needing guidance and employees needing assistance," Moffett said. She noted all five core soft skills are practiced in this course.
You can also improve your skill set by joining organizations, clubs and other groups. "By getting involved in professional associations, students can build relationships with professionals in their industry and functional roles," Moffett said. "They can also gain visibility as an active member who participates in leadership or committees within that organization."
Like Botto, Moffett noted that trying new things is an essential part of career development. "Therefore, students should be willing to step outside of their comfort zone to develop soft skills," she said.
Joe Cote is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter @JoeCo2323.
Mars Girolimon '21 '23G is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University where they earned their bachelor's and master's, both in English and creative writing. In addition to their work in higher education, Girolimon's short fiction is published in the North American Review, So It Goes by The Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library, X-R-A-Y and more. They're currently writing their debut novel, which was Longlisted for The First Pages Prize. Connect with them on LinkedIn and X @MarsGirolimon.
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About Southern New Hampshire University
SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.
Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.