In today’s workplace, it’s taken as read that candidates and employees need to possess two types of skills: hard skills and soft skills. While these terms tend to be used loosely, it’s likely that, throughout your career, you will be judged on how well you display them. First, on your CV, then in job interviews, and later in periodic formal and informal performance reviews.
In this guide, we’re going to define each one more closely, look at examples of each, and consider the difference between soft skills and hard skills. Then, we’ll look in more detail at their relative importance at each stage of an employment cycle: on your CV, in an interview, when you first join an employer and as you progress your career.
What are hard skills?
Hard skills are technical skills that are used to perform the specific tasks required for a particular job. They are your ‘know-how’. They can be obtained via two main routes. The first route is academic courses or training programmes which offer certifications. The second, and equally desirable way to gain hard skills, is via work experience, apprenticeships, and on-the-job learning.
- Often linked to a specific job of field of work
- Are easy to define
- Easy to measure.
In short, you are either competent to do something, or you’re not.
Your qualifications are hard skills
For example, to begin a career as a Petroleum Engineer, you’d almost certainly need a degree in Geotechnical Engineering or Petroleum Engineering. With that, you would be able to gain an entry-level position, which will enable you to gain the practical experience you’ll need to complement the theoretical knowledge you gained during your education.
Hard skills are gained via experience
However, while you may be able to apply scientific and mathematical principles to solve problems, you will still need to learn how to evaluate the performance of a system or understand the steps required for complex decision-making in the workplace.
Your qualifications may open the door to the career you want, but certain technical skills can only be developed by time and relevant experience.
Hard skills open the door
To take another example. You may have worked hard, over time, to gain a degree in Hospitality Management. You will probably have completed a practical work-experience component and gained some technical skills: for example, you can use the reservation system to check guests in and out.
This will certainly catch the eye of a recruiter looking for new talent in a high-profile hotel company, as there is fierce competition for high-potential employees who can be developed and groomed to be the leaders of the future.
Hard skills are easy to define and measure
The list of possible hard skills is literally endless. However, below are just a few examples of competencies. It is easy to ask yourself: am I qualified in this area, and am I able to perform these duties? The answer is a simple yes or no.
- French language, bi-lingual
- Real-estate sales
- Lead generating
- Inventory control
- Organizational design
- Cocktail making
- Tax planning
- Delivering group training courses
- Cash flow management
What are soft skills?
“Soft skills get little respect, but will make or break your career”, Peggy Klaus
Now let’s move on to talk about soft skills. These are much harder to define and measure, as we’ll see. As an example, a candidate may claim to have ‘excellent communication skills. But the question is, in whose eyes? Usually in the opinion of the candidate themselves. However, it doesn’t mean they are not highly valued.
Soft skills are the key to success
The term ‘soft skills’ is somewhat misleading. It implies that there may be something vague or weak about them. Don’t be fooled, this is not the case at all. While it may be that your hard skills get you through the door in an organization, it will be your soft skills that most employers value and that will ensure that you shine brightly. Therefore, it is often more helpful to think of them as your interpersonal skills.
For example, you may be the world’s most talented Internal Auditor, but if you can’t show up for meetings on time or develop positive relationships with your stakeholders, career progression opportunities will, very likely, be limited. Or you may be an exceptionally talented chef and create wonderful menus, but if your team keeps leaving because you don’t listen to them, you’ll find it hard to reach your true potential.
Soft skills can be divided into two main areas: how skillful are you at managing yourself, and how well do you manage your interactions with others. Let’s look at each area in turn.
Related reading: How to Identify and Develop Soft Skills in the Workplace
These can be defined as those soft skills which ensure that you are able to manage your actions, thoughts and emotions in order to operate efficiently in work, and also in life. While some are often considered part of a person’s personality or character, in fact, if you feel the need to become stronger in a particular area, there are strategies you can adopt which will help you.
Let’s look at a few of the most typically mentioned self-management skills:
Time management is absolutely fundamental to success in virtually any workplace. The ability to show up on time, in the mornings, at meetings is a sign of basic professional respect. Your ability to agree and keep to deadlines, and to manage a workload efficiently will impact your reputation and, in the longer term your prospects for progression. At a supervisory or management level, it implies that you are able to delegate effectively and to prioritize the tasks you ask your team to focus on.
The ability to set goals and get yourself-moving towards them is a great strength, in the workplace and in life. Your initiative and the fact that you don’t need to be told what to do or when to do it, imply energy and enthusiasm, two qualities that are highly valued in the workplace.
Over the last decade, with the ever-increasing pace of organizational, technological and societal change, there has been a growing awareness of the importance of resilience in the face of inevitable ups and downs. Resilience is the ability to keep going in the face of difficulty, it is the ability to bounce back after challenges or even defeat.
Although it is often thought of as an intrinsic quality, organizations are increasingly investing in programmes to develop resilience in their employees – perhaps mindfulness courses, coaching and mentoring programmes, or ensuring that people have adequate ‘down-time’ and rest to be able to perform their duties effectively.
Organization requires the skills of planning, estimating lead times and completing tasks according to their priority. It also requires clear and appropriate communication with stakeholders.
Attention to detail
The way that you focus on the accuracy of the work you deliver, and the care you take in every aspect of a task –planning carefully, assessing of pros and cons, communicating clearly, analyzing results and performance realistically.
Soft skills are interpersonal skills
How well you can work with others will be, in most organizations, critical for your success. Let’s look at some interpersonal skills which illustrate their benefits to employers
In the modern workplace, few tasks are accomplished by a single individual. The ability to consult, to offer and ask for assistance and support, as well as the willingness to share ideas and insights, is a strength that employers value as it enables work to be accomplished effectively.
The world has far more managers than leaders. The ability to communicate a clear vision of what’s needed, to inspire and motivate team members to work at their best level, and to be fully accountable for results, is something that certain people are fortunate enough to be born with. However, it can be studied and practiced, and many organizations invest heavily in developing the skills of those they require to lead others.
It’s a cliché on many CVs: ‘I can work on my own or as part of a team’. But what does that actually mean? Being a team player implies actively contributing to the achievement of common goals, with ideas, actions and support.
It implies taking on part of someone else’s role, if that’s required to achieve those goals. As a team is as strong as its weakest member, it implies using skills and experience to help them.
Networking is an interpersonal skill that goes beyond collaboration. A great networker is one who seeks out opportunities to connect with others for reasons beyond the short-term and obvious.
So reaching out to someone who has no connection with a current project, or offering to assist someone who asks for help may have no immediate benefit, that person may prove to be of immense value in opening doors or providing resources down the line.
It has to be said that most natural networkers make their contacts without having any idea in mind about how a contact may be useful, they tend to be naturally sociable and curious. However, networking is a skill that can be practiced and strengthened.
Certain people are natural diplomats and can smooth over any conflict, looking for equitable, win-win solutions to any conflict. In a high-pressure work environment, where employee turnover is high or customer satisfaction is paramount, being able to resolve conflicts to the satisfaction of all parties is a highly-prized soft skill.
Hard Skills vs Soft Skills: Which Ones Are More Important On My CV?
You might have already guessed the answer to this question: to catch the eye of a potential employer and convince them that you could be the right person for the role they’re seeking to fill, you need to highlight both.
When you’re starting a job search, and planning an application, you need to tailor your CV to match the requirements, not only of the position, but also of the employer you’re targeting
The easiest way to do this is to go back to the job ad, and the job description.
What are the hard skills and the soft skills which are highlighted in these? Which ones do you have? How can you provide examples?
Once you’ve defined the skills you have which match what the employer is looking for, the next question is, where do I list them, so they make the maximum impact?
For each application, you’ll most likely be submitting two items. These two important items are your CV and a cover letter.
This should be a short introduction, to introduce yourself and let the recruiter know, in a few short sentences, how you can add value if they select you for the position.
Therefore, without going into any details, you need to include your hard skills, as these are fundamental to you being able to fulfil the basic requirements of the position.
You also need to mention your most relevant self-management and interpersonal skills. Your cover letter isn’t a place to dive deep into the details, but you should aim to catch the eye of a recruiter, so they’ll think: this person seems to have a lot of the things we’re looking for.
Again, both need to be shown.
Your educational qualifications can be mentioned in your personal statement, at the top of your CV, as well as in the Education section. Your certifications can say a lot about you. They not only demonstrate that you have studied the industry you are seeking to enter, they also show that you have tenacity and determination; that you know where you want to build your career
Specific hard skills needed for a role should be included in the ‘Experience’ section of your CV. When possible include details of what you actually achieved.
‘Led the implementation project for the ATS system, achieved 3 weeks ahead of deadline’
‘Used coffee machine to serve up to 60 customers per hour’
As it’s often the first thing a recruiter scans the personal statement should also include mention of your soft skills. However, be prepared to elaborate on these as you weave examples into the Experience section of your CV.
Hard Skills vs Soft Skills: which are more important in an interview?
It’s impossible to be certain, as in every interview, the recruiter will have different priorities. If you’ve come as far as being invited for an interview, this means that your CV has listed some or all of the attributes they’re looking for.
However, every recruiter knows how easy it is for people to claim anything on their CV in order to progress an application, so they’ll rarely take your claims at face value.
Thorough interview preparation is essential if you are to give the interview the best possible insight into your soft, hard and problem-solving skills.
Prepare to back up your hard skills
First, your qualifications. It may sound obvious, but it’s really a good idea to check that you have all your certificates available. It’s unlikely that anyone will ask to see them at an interview, but if your application progresses, you’ll probably be asked to produce them as part of the due diligence procedure. So, if they’ve been lost or misplaced, this is a good moment to do something about it.
Also, if you gained your qualifications a while ago, refresh your memory about the modules and projects you completed. If relevant to the position, these can interest an interviewer and strengthen your case.
On-job experiences and in-company programmes. Prepare yourself with examples:
- The nature of the experience
- What you learned
- What results you achieved
- What challenges you faced
- How often you’ve applied these hard skills
- Whether you’ve trained others in them, etc.
Prepare examples of your soft skills
As we mentioned earlier, soft skills are much harder to measure as they are more subjective.
So before the interview, go through the list of soft skills that you have listed on your CV and cover letter, and select at least three different examples of where and when you demonstrated each one.
Ensure that you take into account the result or outcome for each of your examples. For instance, if you want to highlight that you are a team-player, don’t only give examples of the part you played, but also explain how your unique contribution added value to the team, and what result was achieved.
Which is more important as you build your career?
When you are considering your long-term career development, and considering what will help you to reach your full potential, you also need to consider the relative merits of developing your hard skills and your soft skills.
To make things more complicated, the days when employees spent their entire working life with one employer, climbing the career ladder steadily as the years passed, are gone. So it’s become essential to consider how to gain more skills which will guarantee your long-term employability, regardless of sector, macro-economic, or technological changes.
It may seem obvious. To keep up with wider changes, qualifications need to be updated and upgraded throughout your career. While this is true to an extent, gaining more and more expertise in a specific field may narrow, rather than increase, your possibilities for employment
It could be more useful to upgrade your qualifications by choosing a closely related field so that your range of opportunities widens.
Of course, progressing your career isn’t only about qualifications, and, over the years, it’s likely that your experience will become far more significant. It’s about the quality of your professional background, the depth and breadth of your technical skills and your overall track record of achievements.
The perfect moment to discuss these issues is during your formal performance reviews. Of course, most of the discussion will focus on the previous twelve months, but, in a well-balanced review, it should also look to the future. Ask your appraiser for his or her career advice.
If gaps in either your hard skills or soft skills have been highlighted, this is a time to co-create a plan to address them. Go for a balance.
To improve or broaden your technical skills in the workplace:
- Join a project team that will give you the opportunity to learn or practice.
- Ask for a temporary assignment in another department or location.
- Take over some of the duties of a colleague who is absent for a period of time.
- Ask to be trained for and allocated some new duties.
- Ask for more structured coaching over a period.
- Attend off the job or theoretical training, with the goal of completing new tasks on completion.
To improve or broaden your soft skills
- Work with a more experienced mentor who can guide you.
- Ask to be allocated tasks that give you the opportunity to strengthen areas where you feel weakness.
- Look for more opportunities to demonstrate and expand the skills where you feel strongest.
- Attend off-job or theoretical training. Make a realistic assessment of your skill level before you attend, perhaps by asking for feedback from your manager and colleagues. Then, place a strong focus on enacting your post-course action-plan, as this will be where the real learning and change take place.
We’ve looked in depth at the difference between hard skills and soft skills, and the relevance of each in terms of a job search as well as their relative importance at every stage of a career.
The conclusion that clearly emerges is that hard skills and soft skills are like yin and yang: both intimately connected to and dependent on each other. Seek to develop, and use both, in balance, and you’ll increase your chances of a meaningful, enjoyable and successful career.