Technical skills vs soft skills: the key differences

How different types of competencies stack up

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By Nicole Schreiber-Shearer, Future of Work Specialist at Gloat

Given that skills-based organizations are 49% more likely to maximize efficiency and 98% more likely to retain high performers, it’s easy to understand why this approach is the talent strategy of the future. Yet, while 98% of leaders are eager to experiment with skills initiatives, only about one in five companies are truly adopting skill-based strategies to a significant extent.

Part of what’s holding many businesses back from embracing this cutting-edge approach is uncertainty about the skills their workforce has and the capabilities they need to develop. When it comes to identifying skill needs to prioritize, leaders often wonder whether technical skills or soft skills are more important.

If you’re looking to turn your company into a skill-based organization, there are a few things HR and business leaders need to know about technical and soft skills and the differences that set these types of competencies apart.

What are technical skills and why do they matter?

Technical skills refer to the set of abilities, knowledge, and experience needed to perform specific tasks for a job. These skills are usually related to working with technologies, such as computers, software, and other industry-related equipment. Many modern jobs require employees to master new technical skills, often to make tasks easier and more efficient to complete.

Technical skills are becoming increasingly important as the pace of innovation continues to accelerate. According to IBM, the half-life of technical skills is now just 2.5 years—meaning that the knowledge employees learn becomes outdated approximately every 30 months. To keep up with new technological breakthroughs and unlock career agility, employees must constantly learn and update their skills.

Creating pathways to help employees develop technical skills isn’t just beneficial for them; it can also help companies save on talent acquisition costs in the long run. Rather than relying exclusively on new hires to bring emerging, in-demand competencies into the organization, companies that prioritize technical skills development can tap into internal talent pools to fill high-priority roles.

What are soft skills?

In contrast, soft skills are non-technical skills that relate to how employees get work done. They determine how workers will interact with colleagues, what they’ll do to solve problems, and the type of approach they will take to managing their work. Some examples of soft skills include interpersonal skills, communication skills, listening skills, time management, problem-solving, and empathy. Since soft skills are relevant for virtually every job, they’re among the top skills that employers seek out when evaluating candidates.

Why are soft skills important and which matter most?

The most important soft skills will vary depending on the role an employee performs. Someone responsible for assigning work to an entire team will need good leadership skills, while it may be more important for an individual contributor to have effective time management skills.

Some soft skills that are highly valuable for most roles include adaptability, communication, compromise, creative thinking, leadership, listening, work ethic, teamwork, time management, motivation, problem-solving, critical thinking, and conflict resolution.

Part of what makes soft skills so valuable is that they’re highly transferable, meaning that employees can put these capabilities to use across their organization in many different ways. A worker who excels at conflict resolution, for example, might do well in a customer support role, but they can also harness their aptitude for de-escalating difficult situations to serve them in a management role.

Technical skills versus soft skills: the key differences

While both technical skills and soft skills can help improve employee performance and productivity, there are several distinct differences between these types of competencies that HR and business leaders should keep in mind.

#1. Technical skills must be taught while some soft skills are inherent
Employees generally tap into their technical skills when they need to complete processes like drafting an email, editing an image, or writing code. No one is born with this type of knowledge; instead, it’s something workers develop through school work, L&D courses, and on-the-job experiences. In contrast, soft skills often relate to emotional intelligence, which is something we build throughout our lifetimes. Soft skills like listening and the ability to compromise are taught at a young age and used in many different contexts.

#2. The half-life for technical skills is shorter
As the pace of technological innovation continues to increase, employees need to routinely update their technical skills to keep pace with the speed of digital breakthroughs. Given that the half-life of technical skills is now just 2.5 years, employees must learn new systems and processes approximately every 30 months to keep their knowledge up to date.

While the half-life of all skills is shrinking, it’s thought to be longer—about five years—for general skills. Since soft skills are relevant to so many different roles, both inside and outside of the professional sphere, these skills don’t become obsolete the same way technical knowledge does.

#3. Soft skills are more directly transferable to other roles
Technical skills can vary greatly depending on an employee’s role and responsibilities. A software engineer will almost assuredly need to know how to code, for example, while that likely won’t be a priority for someone in marketing. Though technical skills can still be relevant to a variety of different roles, the specific knowledge that an employee needs to acquire to complete processes will be tailored to their job.

In contrast, the same soft skill can be relevant to plenty of jobs, even amongst roles that don’t seem to have much in common. For instance, creative thinking can be an advantage in closing deals, devising solutions for customer support, and launching impactful marketing campaigns.

#4. Assessing technical skills is generally more straightforward and quantitative
Employers who want to measure their employees’ technical skills can ask them to explain how they’d work through a problem or have them complete an assessment that mirrors the process. In contrast, there aren’t written assessments or tests that employees can take to showcase that they’re good listeners or that they work well with others. Instead, these soft skills are demonstrated over time, based on how employees handle certain scenarios and challenges.

How to take skills visibility to the next level with workforce intelligence

Ultimately, employees need both technical skills and soft skills to excel at work. As businesses strive to become skills-based organizations, leaders will need complete visibility into the skills that employees have and the competencies they wish to develop.

In the past, it was almost impossible to keep tabs on all of the capabilities that a workforce had to offer since employees were constantly learning new skills that managers may not have been aware of. However, the rise of workforce intelligence tools puts skills transparency well within reach.

The platforms harness data from employees’ CVs and LinkedIn profiles to infer skills and proficiency levels. Most platforms’ algorithms take into account both years of experience and how long ago an employee executed a specific skill to accurately assess capabilities. Some even let employees and managers evaluate their skills, providing even more context into what employees know. Managers and leaders can then harness this information to reallocate talent as new priorities emerge and market demands shift.

To learn more about the capabilities that will be most crucial in the new world of work and what it takes to develop them, download our research report on skills and workforce agility.

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