If you look through online job boards, you’ll notice most produce listings feature at least one requirement of a fairly technical nature. Knowledge of good agricultural practices or postharvest handling; familiarity with integrated pest management; experience with ethylene or ozone; proficiency in Excel and CRM. Known as “hard” skills, these tangible, measurable competencies have become increasingly prized in a business world eager to integrate technology and efficiency into its systems and processes.
Unless you’re a surgeon or a plumber, however, technical proficiency alone isn’t enough. What many workers are now realizing—or perhaps rediscovering—is there’s far more to achieving success than simply knowing how to do your job. Flashy technical skills and knowledge may impress potential employers, but without the ability to communicate, collaborate, or cooperate even the most tech-savvy wunderkind probably won’t make it to the top of the professional ladder.
Enter soft skills. Often linked to a person’s emotional intelligence, or EI, soft skills include personality traits and interpersonal skills such as confidence, a positive attitude, a strong work ethic, critical thinking, dependability, leadership, flexibility, and self-motivation, which reflect the human element of life in any organization. In every workplace, there are relationships, friction, and different personalities; EI helps us recognize our emotions and how they affect those around us. It may sound squishy, but don’t be fooled—soft skills, while less quantifiable than their technical counterparts, are pivotal to succeeding in today’s business climate.
So what’s more important to employers, hard skills or soft skills? A 2013 study conducted by American Express and consulting firm Millennial Branding found more than 60 percent of managers said soft skills were their top consideration in employee performance evaluations, while 32 percent made hard skills the number-one priority. A 2014 Harris Poll conducted on behalf of CareerBuilder indicated an overwhelming majority of U.S. employers, 77 percent, believe hard and soft skills are equally important, while 16 percent believe soft skills are more important.
Not surprisingly, job descriptions have begun to reflect the business world’s changing attitude toward soft skills with phrases like, “Must be a team player” and “Must be passionate about growing through collaboration and feedback.”
“In order to get anywhere in management or in organizations, soft skills are absolutely essential,” comments Holly Katko, president of U-Connect, Inc., a consulting and training firm in Lisle, IL. “It’s literally a matter of getting along: how do you get along with people? How do you work with others?”
Hard skills might land you the interview, but soft skills will get you hired. All the technical knowledge in the world won’t be worth much if you can’t sell yourself during the interview. To this end, Katko notes that a phone interview is one of the best tools to screen for soft skills in potential employees. A good interviewer can capture a great deal of useful information and insight in just one conversation.
“You have to know how to really listen to the interviewee because all you hear is the voice, and this takes down the façade we put up in an in-person interview,” Katko advises. “Did the person use the right words? Did he or she build heart into the conversation? Was there hesitation in the wrong spot? Those are soft skills at work.”
In some instances, soft skills can often compensate for a lack of hard skills. D.J. Stornetta, president and owner of California-based executive recruiting firm Produce Careers, Inc., points out that cultural fit, working style, personality, and dedication to the industry—all soft skills—play a role in determining whether or not someone is a good fit for a certain position or company.