I’ve just completed a talk about resumes at the Penang Caring Society (Kompleks Masyarakat Penyayang) in front of a receptive audience of about 70 to 80 people and one of my focus was on developing one’s soft skills.
Generally, we take soft skills for granted and there’s little attempt to really explain what this term means. Oh yes, we do hear reports in the newspapers about the government urging graduates to improve on their soft skills and local public universities starting to include soft skill training into their programmes.
But what are these soft skills that they keep mentioning? I looked up wikipedia but all I saw was a one-paragraph definition: “Soft skills refer to the cluster of personality traits, social graces, facility with language, personal habits, friendliness, and optimism that mark people to varying degrees.”
As a summary, the above statement should be good enough to define soft skill but like I pointed out at my talk, there’s still little explanation. So maybe, what I’m writing here can help clarify to you what soft skills are all about.
Firstly, you’ll need to understand that soft skills are different from hard skill. Hard skill refers to your technical and academic competence. If you have your degree or diploma, that’s your hard skill. If you have a professional certificate, that’s also your hard skill. It shows your competence to carry out your job technically.
Secondly, attaining soft skills is a life-long process. For many soft skills, you can’t get a certificate for them. For most soft skills, you can only learn them from what I’d like to refer to as the university of life. It’s on-the-job learning. Sometimes, it’s hit-or-miss. Learning the hard way from one’s own experience or learning the easy way from others’ mistakes.
Soft skills are not easily quantifiable. Take communication skills. Communication is not just about talking. It goes deeper. There are both verbal and written forms. For instance: your telephone techniques, how you answer enquiries, selling, organising people, teaching, persuading, ability to talk to specific audiences like the elderly or those in distress, listening to them, understanding their difficulties, counselling, dealing with complaints, diplomacy, body language. writing minutes, writing or checking reports, writing letters, etc. That’s communication.
The ability to deal with paperwork and numbers. Can you keep or organise records well? Knowing how to balance and budget your income and expenditure is important. Dealing with correspondences, even typing or keyboard skills and of course, using measurements. For instance, we use the metric system in our lives but for many things, I still find it easier to use the imperial system. So, I’ve adapted by learning to do quick mental conversions.
Problem-solving skill. In your career, how creative are you in coming up with good ideas, planning and organising things, and generally finding solutions to problems?
Practical and mechanical skill. This is about getting your hands dirty: the ability to use tools, fixing or repairing things, cooking, sewing, building things and maintaining machines. Knowing handicraft also falls in this category.
Computer knowledge is a skill. Who still doesn’t know how to use personal computers in this age and time? There’s word processing, spreadsheet, databases and Internet skills. Do you know how to use the Internet search engines to look for information? Do you know how to use email? For some others, computer skills include programming and hardware/software support skills.
Language skill. It’s good to know other languages, especially those that you can use effectively as part of your work.
Transferable skill. The skill you can transfer from one job to another.
And lastly, a big, big skill – your personality skill. This is all about you, me, us. How we carry ourselves. How other people see us. How we relate to other people.
I’m not going to go through all of them but what comes to mind are: How you show responsibility, reliability, sociability. Do you enjoy challenges in your work? What’s your attitude towards work? How self-motivated are you and how well do you work under pressure? Are you a leader or a follower? What about your initiative, determination, drive, teamwork and collaboration, integrity and ability to keep secrets? Honesty and work ethics count a lot. Critical thinking; do you accept things as they are or do you question them? Research and information gathering, your focus on the details, time management, flexibility and adaptability. How good is your general knowledge and how aware are you of the world around you? Take this … even your sense of humour is part of your personality skill. And of course, do you have common sense? The list goes on.
So you see, soft skills encompass almost everything about us and around us. As we move on in our lives, as we interact with people, that’s when we continue to develop on and practise our soft skills. Working life requires us to bone up on our soft skills so that we can interact well with others to get things done. Employers require this from us.
About the writer
Quah Seng-Sun is the Content Manager at JobStreet.com, a leading on-line recruitment company in the Asia-Pacific region. This article may appear in a slightly different format in the JobStreet.com webiste.