Soft skills vs. hard skills in upskilling – Bridging the disconnect between employer and employee priorities

With the U.S. jobs marketplace in an ever-evolving state, companies continue to seek out talent that meets their skills needs for today and in the future. However, a recent survey conducted by Reputation Leaders and sponsored by DeVry University found that employers and workers think and talk about skills differently. While the way skills are considered and described may be different, there is unacknowledged common ground among the skill sets both groups say they prioritize. Specifically, to get ahead in a complex global economy, U.S. employers say they need more soft skills from workers, while workers voice a need for hard skills and credentials. These priorities are not mutually exclusive – they act in harmony, with many hard skills catalyzing soft skills, and vice versa.

This apparent disconnect in communication on skills could result in a lack of reciprocal investment from employers and workers in upskilling. As a result, HR leaders need to accommodate skills needs for both their organization and employees and communicate commonalities to build understanding.

Skills workers value

DeVry’s report, Closing the Activation Gap: Converting Potential to Performance by Upskilling the Workforce, found that the skills workers value are hard skills and credentials such as those in data analytics, AI and software engineering/coding, digital marketing and advanced business degrees. This matches corporate America’s focus on digital transformation and employee interest in embedding technology like AI and machine learning into their work.

In addition, freelancing platform Upwork recently reported that AI-related work was the fastest-growing category of job listings in the first half of 2023, so workers are correct to assume the need for technology-focused skills will be important. For many employers, more concrete and technical skills may only be viewed as beneficial for the short term given how rapidly technology continues to advance, but these skills also have long-term benefits for companies as they seek to play a role in ongoing digital transformation.

Skills employers value

For employers to advance in the future, data from DeVry’s upskilling survey found they put greater emphasis on workers having soft skills or durable skills like critical thinking and problem-solving, leadership and management, and creativity and innovation. This comes at a time when many employers blame the pandemic for the lack of soft skills they are seeing in the workplace as the pandemic forced employees to miss out on in-person work experiences that offer key relationship-building and personal growth opportunities.

Just like the technical skills workers value, these more intangible qualities are important to navigate current and anticipated shifts in the workplace, such as return to office and automation. Durable skills are less likely to change long-term and are worth the investment for both employers and workers. However, to achieve maximum return on investment, HR leaders should bridge the disconnect between the hard and soft skills workers and employers say they need.

Closing the gap in upskilling expectations

Hard skills and soft skills are not mutually exclusive, and both will benefit the advancement of employees’ careers and organizations in an ever-changing economy. For example, most advanced business degrees (which workers value more than employers) include leadership and management courses (which employers value more than workers). Conversely, employers want workers to have skills related to critical thinking and problem-solving, which can be learned by developing technical skills in certain areas.

To address these hidden miscommunications on skills priorities, HR leaders can create balanced upskilling programs in areas of shared importance and educate workers on the common ground between what their organization needs and what employees personally value. This will help meet expectations and allow organizations to obtain the skills needed to thrive, while also allowing the workforce to obtain the training it values to advance their careers.

Every organization and its workforce will have different skills needs depending on unique marketplace dynamics and career demands. Working with an education partner that can identify the skills your organization and industry require and the skills your employees want, and build customized learning opportunities around them, will help your workforce and company thrive amid ever-evolving industry and economic change.

To learn more about upskilling gaps for U.S. employers and workers, check out the Closing the Activation Gap: Converting Potential to Performance by Upskilling the Workforce report.