The cold, hard, robotic truth of the matter is that we live in a world where machines are threatening to replace technical skills faster than ever. In fact, research shows that all professions with low levels of social interaction will likely be automated over the next decade. And it’s not just blue-collar workers who are at risk.
Even those in so-called knowledge jobs, like the 34 human insurance claim workers that Japanese company Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance replaced with the IBM Watson Explorer, will find that natural language processing systems may make them irrelevant.
All in all, with research firm Gartner projecting that one-third of all jobs globally will be replaced by AI, automation, or machine learning by the year 2025, human workers don’t have time to waste when it comes to cultivating skills that set us apart from machines. Workers have to figure out how to stay competitive, and they need to take a lesson from those machines and robots and do it quickly.
But there may be a silver bullet for jobseekers who fear a future where their technical skills will become irrelevant almost as soon (or faster) as they can be acquired. Some experts believe that soft skills, those difficult to identify and often impossible to measure traits and qualities, might just be the tool jobseekers can utilize to stay relevant.
The idea, experts say, is to use soft skills not to beat back technological advances but to use them to augment the often superior technical skills that computers and robots claim. Specifically, humans can use their capacity for creativity, judgment, and social skills to amplify the effectiveness of technology, according to Christian Conroy, author of the paper Technological Automation and the Soft Skill Revolution.
Conroy is currently a dual Master in Public Policy (MPP) and Master of Science in Foreign Service (MSFS) candidate at Georgetown University, where he focuses on using econometric analysis to advise foreign companies entering emerging markets. During a recent interview with BOLD, he explained that students and workers will find their STEM skillsets being outpaced by the capabilities of computers, and should thus be encouraged to hone skills that strengthen – not compete with – machine intelligence.
“We are at a point right now where computers can do most things faster than a human being, but there are still no computer chips that can actually simulate human decision-making,” Conroy said. “So it’s about time to look at how we can augment intelligence. How do we train people for future careers and job sets instead of looking at the temporal mindset?”
This doesn’t mean that hard skills have become less important, according to Conroy, rather there needs to be a better balance of skills training to help mold better quality candidates down the road.
“The way to balance education isn’t to get rid of the academic disciplines in favor of soft skills. You don’t need to throw out math. You don’t need to throw out engineering. You don’t need a whole curriculum upheaval where you are tossing out STEM and replacing them with soft skills. You just need to reframe them in a way that’s project-driven. It’s about taking all of these parts and putting it all together in a way that prepares people not only for innovating and creating jobs but also for the inevitable adaptation which is going to come in the future of work.”
Research backs up the hypothesis that soft skills are becoming more critical to jobseeker success. According to a paper from The Hamilton Project, over the past 30 years job tasks in the U.S. have shifted dramatically toward tasks requiring noncognitive – or soft – skills. During that time, the need for social skills has grown by 16 percent and the need for service skills has grown by 17 percent. As advances in computer technology have continued to automate job functions, routine tasks have been de-emphasized (Autor, Levy, and Murnane 2003), declining by 10 percent since 1980. Tasks that require high levels of math-related skill have seen only 5 percent growth overall in the past 30 years, though this increase stopped about 10 years ago.
More specifically and according to an analysis of 2.3 million LinkedIn profiles for The Wall Street Journal, employers are most interested in “communication skills” (58% of those who listed this skill on their profiles were hired into new positions over the course of a year, from 2014–2015). Other skills that were most in demand, according to the study, were organization, teamwork, punctuality, critical thinking, social skills, creativity, adaptability and having a friendly personality.
But how can workers who are desperate to demonstrate their relevance in this changing workforce exhibit these skills in any real way during a job interview? According to Lou Adler, CEO and founder of training and search firm The Adler Group and author of The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), it’s as easy as having a conversation.
“Here’s how I assess soft skills: I ask applicants questions about themselves and their careers,” Adler said. If a candidate can describe a career where responsibilities have expanded in scope and where collaboration has spread across departments that is an excellent sign that a candidate’s soft skills are on par with their technical skills.
“Through these conversations, I can build a profile of the candidate over time and see how they have evolved,” he said. “If I know that their projects are growing in scope, size, and impact and that they are being given exposure to more and more people outside of their own department and given more and more access to senior executives, I can determine that this person has developed excellent soft skills.”
Adler suggests jobseekers introduce scenarios into their resumes that highlight soft skills – any collaborative work or group projects, for example – and that they focus on these group efforts wherever possible during the interview process. While it may be tempting for candidates to focus on their individual achievements and the impact of those on an organization, it’s just as important – maybe even more so – to highlight successful team projects since they say so much about a candidate’s ability in the soft skills department.
In fact, Adler believes these skills are so important that calling them ‘soft skills’ is a misnomer.
“Soft skills are too important to be called ‘soft,’ he said. “They are not technical skills, but they are not soft. Anything that can be automated probably will be automated thanks to AI and technology. The ability to communicate with others, though – being able to persuade, and influence, and collaborate – those skills will never probably be automated, which make them critical.