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BusinessColumnistsJamie Herzlich

‘Soft skills’ in demand but hard to teach, employers say

At SupplyHouse.com, employees meet at the company's Melville

At SupplyHouse.com, employees meet at the company's Melville headquarters on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017. The "culture club" group meets monthly to discuss initiatives they would like the company to implement. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Intangible skills — such as being a good communicator and team player — are becoming just as sought after by employers as the technical skills to do a job.

But companies say candidates with these “soft skills” can be hard to find. In a LinkedIn survey last year, hiring managers said it was difficult to attract people with the right soft skills for 59 percent of their open jobs.

It helps to vet candidates for critical soft skills before hiring them, but it also pays to try to foster those skills within the workplace.

“As we look to the future of work, it’s clear that jobs that require soft skills can’t just be automated away,” said LinkedIn economist Guy Berger. “Jobs in health care or education, for instance, require human skills like interpersonal communication and relationship-building.”

Soft skills are important for every job, regardless of industry, location or seniority, he said.

Yet, they aren’t always easy to find “because soft skills are more difficult to teach and learn than hard skills, and our education system has struggled to develop scalable and effective ways to teach them,” Berger said.

The top soft skills employers are looking for, according to LinkedIn research, include being a good communicator, being well organized, being a team player, always being punctual, and being a critical thinker.

These skills definitely top the list, said Kari Stirnweis, human resources manager at Melville-based SupplyHouse.com, an e-commerce company that sells plumbing, heating, HVAC and electrical supplies online.

The company emphasizes soft skills and not only does training, but also focuses on year-round activities that foster those skills. For example, it holds an annual eight-week initiative focused on its core values, promoting soft skills such as teamwork and respect. Activities include department job swaps and an employee “skill share,” where employees can share a skill they’re good at, Stirnweis said.

SupplyHouse.com also created a new “culture club” to encourage employees to offer feedback and discuss initiatives they’d like the company to implement, she said. The monthly meetings also foster communication skills.

Still, some soft skills can be taught more easily than others.

In a past survey by Instructure, a Salt Lake City-based educational technology company, 85 percent of managers felt their organization was effective at training new employees overall, but only a small percentage of managers felt their training was effective in improving vital attributes such as work ethic.

That’s why hiring with these skills in mind is important, said Jeff Weber, where his title is senior vice president of people and places at Instructure.

Asking job candidates “situational questions” can help you find out what kind of soft skills they have, said Randi Busse, president of Workforce Development Group, a Massapequa Park customer-service training and employee development firm, who has done training at SupplyHouse.com.

For instance, she said, you might ask “How would you handle a customer who was upset about a situation she experienced?” or “Tell me about a time you had an issue with a co-worker and how you handled it.”

Busse also encourages candidates to play up their soft skills in their cover letter, particularly if they’re lacking in industry experience.

Liz Uzzo, HR director at H2M architects + engineers in Melville, said the firm uses situational-type questions with candidates.

It also focuses on in-house training and hired Dale Carnegie & Associates to do soft skills training on-site with a team of middle managers a couple of years back.

It gave the managers “a good foundation to how they approach and interact with their employees,” Uzzo said.

Improving soft skills should be part of a continuing process of development, said Jonathan Vehar, vice president of products at Dale Carnegie in Hauppauge.

“Managers should take every opportunity to reinforce the strength of their people and look for opportunities for them to get better,” he said, because ultimately fostering these skills can provide a competitive edge.

“Everybody knows the same hard skills,” said Vehar, noting it’s more difficult for firms to stand out nowadays. “Having good soft skills can be the differentiator.”

Fast Fact:

While soft skills are in demand, only 31% of employers said they offered soft skills development to their employees.

Source: 2016 survey by Wonderlic

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