Hard skills vs. Soft skills in Hiring

teacher and student at white board

Emily Heaslip, content writer at Vervoe

In every job description that you write, you’re likely to ask candidates to show off both their hard and soft skills. Hard skills are specific technical skills and training, while soft skills relate to traits like leadership or communication.

When it comes to hard skills vs. soft skills, what’s the difference? How do you hire for each? And which skill set is the best predictor of success?

In the world of hiring, soft skills have recently become the holy grail of recruiting. Soft skills – emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills like communication and empathy – are among the most in-demand qualifications a candidate can bring to the table.

What are hard skills?

Any technical knowledge or training you have gained through your work experience or education is known as a hard skill. Some examples might include:

  • A designer that has studied or self-taught skills with Adobe design programs.
  • Warehouse staff who have experience using an RF or barcode scanner.
  • A software developer who can write code in a particular language.

Examples of hard skills

Each industry and role type will require a different technical skillset. Some examples of hard skills include:

  • SEO/SEM marketing
  • UI/UX design
  • Bilingual or multilingual
  • Adobe software suite
  • Programming languages
  • Data analysis
  • Cloud storage systems

What are soft skills?

While technical or hard skills are relevant to the tasks you might do in the role, soft skills refer to the way you perform those tasks in a team context. While hard skills are often more quantifiable and easy to assess, soft skills are a result of your personality and experience.

Soft skills dictate the way you work with a team, the way you serve customers or the way you communicate with vendors and co-workers. While all employers value these soft skills, they can be hard to assess using traditional hiring methods

Examples of soft skills

Depending on the role, some soft skills may be more important than others. Some of the most sought-after soft skills include:

  • Critical thinking skills
  • Leadership
  • Collaboration with others
  • Ability to influence others
  • Time management
  • Flexibility/Adaptability

Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills: Which predicts success?

According to one LinkedIn survey, more than half of nearly 300 hiring managers reported that the lack of soft skills among job candidates is limiting their company’s productivity. Recruiters are getting creative in trying to find new hires with talent in communication, time management, negotiating, writing, listening, problem-solving, and decision making. Soft skills – the more intuitive EQ – is seen as a better predictor of success than hard skills, which can be taught or trained.

Why are soft skills the best predictor of success? How can hiring managers design a recruitment process that takes these skills into account?

The case for soft skills in hiring

Soft skills are in-demand in nearly every company and every industry. A Wall Street Journal survey of 900 executives found that 92% said soft skills were equally important or more important than technical expertise. But 89% of those surveyed said they have a “very or somewhat difficult time finding people with the requisite attributes.” Likewise, LinkedIn’s 2018 Workforce Report discovered that the four most in-demand soft skills are leadership, communication, collaboration, and time management.

Are soft skills a better predictor of success? According to one author, yes. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence at Work, found in his research of 500 executives that emotional intelligence – soft skills – was a better predictor of top performance than previous experience or IQ. CEOs at some of the world’s top companies (Amazon, Xerox, and Tesla, to name a few) lead with emotional intelligence have designed their entire corporate structure around soft skills.

And soft skills aren’t just excellent for creating a fulfilling and pleasant work environment. The link between profit and leaders with high emotional intelligence is clear. In one study, CEOs whose employees rated them high in character had an average return of 9.35% over a two-year period, nearly five times as much as companies with CEOs who had low character ratings. The case for recruiting for soft skills is strong: but, there’s something to be said for balancing good leadership and communication with individuals who have honed their talent.

The importance of hard skills in hiring

Have some recruiters overcorrected in their search for candidates with high EQ? Maybe, says one expert.

Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, believes that to have a successful career, you must develop skills that make you an expert in something. There will always be a market for those with a depth of knowledge in one thing; specific fields will always demand new hires with niche skills and technical training. Newport argues that he more mastery you have in a profession or field, the more control and satisfaction it’ll give you in your career.

While it’s true that technical masters do become top CEOs – Steve Jobs and Bill Gates come to mind – other experts note that eventually, soft skills and emotional intelligence must be learned. Many programmers, for example, have some of the primary hard skills that it takes to run a company. However, they fall short on crucial EQ traits like listening. The best leaders can learn soft skills over time but start as an expert in something.

Hiring for hard skills vs. soft skills

Unfortunately, soft skills can be hard to determine based on a CV alone. That can make hiring for them difficult.

Companies who hire successfully with low turnover have learned how to construct their interview process to cover hard and soft skills. These recruiters ask candidates to perform tests mimicking real-world scenarios to get the best prediction of their success in the company. These skills tests then get triangulated with psychometrics and attitude testing.

Plus, the advent of AI has made it possible to weigh hard skills vs. soft skills equally. Where in the past, a candidate might wow a recruiter in the interview, but have no mastery over their field, an algorithm can’t be biased by a resume or stellar presentation. Smart companies have even begun to customise their interview process for specific soft skills that are applicable to each open position: so your extroverts become your top salespeople, while your listeners join your HR team.

There’s a place for both hard skills and soft skills in the workplace. And it’s essential you can assess for both in your hiring process. It’s up to your hiring team to find the right combination for success.

About the author

Emily Heaslip is a versatile freelance copywriter who writes for finance, tech, and e-commerce brands. She currently lives in Cape Town and can be found running, hiking, and exploring the South African coast in her free time.