In my twenty-plus years in the training industry, I’ve worked both as an employee or in-house consultant purchasing training and as a vendor offering off-the-shelf and customized training. Topics such as compliance, regulatory changes, and health and safety are understandably often mandated training. Yet, the suite of interpersonal and personal competencies, typically known as “soft skills,” too often collects the digital version of dust on organizations’ learning management systems. Then, after time passes, training professionals and senior management recognize that critical soft skills remain lacking despite the availability of these optional courses, leaving them in no mood to upgrade or even continue this library due to employees’ seeming lack and interest and low use.
Simultaneously, according to one large survey, 92% of executives say that soft skills are equally important or more important than technical skills. And 89% of executives say that it is difficult to find people with soft skills. In the same survey, 44% of these same executives responded that the biggest skills gap among employees involves soft skills.
But the Research Says . . .
Employees with strong soft skills benefit companies. For example, research from Boston University, Harvard University, and the Ross School of Business at University of Michigan reveal that training employees in self-awareness and other soft skills produces a 256% return on investment. Conversely, employees with poor soft skills can actually cost organizations time and money due to problems resulting from poor communication, performance management, and leadership. With such strong evidence backing the need for soft skills training and proficiency, why aren’t more companies genuinely focused on improving these critical skills? This contradiction occurs time and again. A recent Adecco survey finds, “Of the executives who believe there is a skills gap, 89% say that apprenticeships and training programs could help. But 42% say that in-house training programs would be too expensive.”
What’s Behind the Disconnect?
Frankly, what executive, shareholder, and other stakeholder wouldn’t welcome a 256% ROI? So, what’s clouding leadership’s thinking? One issue is not addressing the soft skills gap holistically. For instance, according to a Learning House report, “Despite pointing the finger at colleges and universities for not helping to address the skills gap, almost half of employers (43%) are not extending their hand in collaboration to these institutions to help ensure the necessary skills are being addressed.”
The same report finds that 74% of companies only invest $500 per employee on training and development in the workplace, regardless of topic.
Sometimes, leadership holds employees responsible for not taking optional soft skills training. However, research by the staffing company Randstad finds that 66% of US employees between 18 and 34 years old say they need to strengthen their interpersonal skills — where is the organizational support?
Some organizations fantasize that one-time training suffices. How many of us learned to ride a bike the first time we tried? Or mastered tying our shoes or kicking a soccer ball on the first attempt? Even more to the point, how many of us developed the technical skills that serve as the backbone of our professional experience after one course? Yet we expect individuals to demonstrate mastery of critical soft skills competencies after a single training session?
One’s confidence about new knowledge and skills doesn’t happen overnight. To wit, not enough organizations invest in and commit to a comprehensive training program involving effective soft skills courseware, role plays, supplemental learning materials, various delivery modalities, different learning styles, and so on.
How Organizations Can Close the Soft Skills Gap
First, organizations should make soft skills training a priority and requirement. They need to prove that they’re devoted to personal and professional development so that their employees succeed. According to LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Learning Report, 94% of employees would stay at a company longer if it invested in their career development. Further, 56% of employees would spend more time learning if their manager directed them to take a specific course to improve their professional skills.
Companies can also augment soft skills training programs with strategies like building a coaching and mentoring program, retention training, prescriptive learning paths tailored to specific job roles, and including soft skills assessments in hiring and performance reviews.
Bottom line: Investing in and fully supporting soft skills training may seem like an unnecessary expense and afterthought, but actually it can become one of the best initiatives an organization takes to remain competitive in our global economy.