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Economy & Business

Employers find applicants soft on 'soft skills'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 29, 2013: As regional vice president of operations for RehabCare, Lisa Meyers communicates with a good many applicants for physical therapists' jobs at the 360 locations she hires for across Missouri and southern Illinois.

Unfortunately, she wishes some of those applicants would communicate a bit better themselves.

“I would say that they are falling short in knowing how to work as part of a team, conflict resolution and just overall communications,” she said. “They are coming out with a good level of competence in their skill sets and what they’ve been trained to do, but it is about taking that knowledge and translating it into successful outcomes at the worksite.”

That’s a theme that is echoed by hiring managers and human resources professionals around the area who often find a pool of potential employees well-educated in the technical aspects of their field but often lacking in so-called “soft skills,” like the ability to communicate. It's an area some feel may be malnourished in an increasingly internet-driven culture of mobile devices and text-messaged informality.

Difficult to teach

Some of the figures are striking. According to this year’s State of the St. Louis Workforce Report issued by the Workforce Solutions Group at St. Louis Community College, the largest single area of deficiency identified by area employers is lack of communication and interpersonal skills with nearly three-fifths of more than 1,200 local companies surveyed calling it a shortcoming in applicants they see. That figure has risen from just over half who said the same in 2011.

Poor work ethic and lack of critical thinking and problem solving also made the top three concerns of employers. Inability to think creatively (46 percent) and lack of writing skills (44 percent) also ranked relatively high.

By contrast, the study, which surveyed enterprises with workforces of a few employees to a few thousand, found that a dearth of technical skills finished seventh with just over 40 percent of employers saying it was a hiring concern. Only 29 percent of employers said job seekers lacked math abilities and only 26 percent said computer skills were a problem.

Not all the top worries were soft skills. About half of employers in the survey rated a lack of business and industry knowledge as a problem. Meanwhile, the soft skill of teamwork and collaboration didn’t rank particularly high on the list of deficiencies though more than a third of employers cited it as a concern.

The results paint a consistent picture.

“The soft skills far outpace the technical skills when you ask employers about the shortcomings of job applicants,” said Roderick Nunn, vice chancellor for economic development and workforce solutions at St. Louis Community College.

Nunn said that this trend may reflect a number of factors, including the way technology has changed how people communicate. He noted that SLCC often tries to address soft skill issues by creating learning environments that mimic the workplace and focus on teamwork. Moreover, experiential learning like internships and other opportunities for students to interact with the expectations of real-world employers play a crucial role.

However, communication skills are often learned in the home and community over a long period. Soft skills can be hard to inculcate in college.

“They are very difficult to teach if you have a student only for a one-year certificate program or even a two- or four-year program. It is hard to correct a lifetime of bad habits in a short period of time,” he said. “It’s very important for parents to recognize that and make sure their kids are getting requisite types of interactions that require them to communicate, have good interpersonal skills and understand group dynamics and teamwork. You can get that in athletics, sports, team-based projects and volunteer opportunities.”

Meanwhile, a slack labor market filled with employers jittery over hiring has meant fewer opportunities at jobs for those who don’t impress their interviewers as effective communicators.

“If you have a small company which is just going to hire a few people over the next year, they’ve got to get the selection right or else they are going to be in trouble,” he said.

Generic resumes and midnight texts

Jack Kennedy, talent acquisition leader for Savvis, a CenturyLink Company, said he sees job seekers who get themselves into trouble through poor communication skills, often on the one thing that should be every applicant’s traditional calling card.

“I see a lot of generic resumes being thrown out there,” he said. “It’s kind of like catching a fish. You are not just going to throw out the first thing you grab out of your tackle box. You want to use your best piece of bait.”

Instead, he finds some applicants simply issue a single resume to all potential employers, a practice which neglects the opportunity to distinguish the future worker’s qualifications from others.

“If the resume doesn’t speak to the specific job and industry, there’s going to be no interest there,” he said, noting that he also sometimes sees surprising grammatical errors that mar an otherwise promising resume.

Other examples of poor communication skills can emerge in lifeless interviews or phone screenings with an applicant who sounds distracted by typing on the computer, instant messaging friends or doing other work while speaking to their interviewer.

“Almost as much as the technical answers matter, so does the connection that’s made in the conversation,” said Kennedy. “If you walk out of an interview thinking it didn’t really click, sometimes that carries a lot of weight, especially for the mid to higher level jobs.”

Kimberly Erskine, managing supervisor of talent acquisition at St. Louis utility Ameren, said her company often tries to help applicants by sending materials ahead of time which mention the importance of abilities like communication and teamwork.

“You do see where someone might have good technical skills but maybe hasn’t done the preparation on the front end to really sell those competencies,” she said. “A lot of times, especially newer graduates come out prepared to talk about the technical skills but aren’t prepared to talk about how in their lives they can be prepared to demonstrate other skills that are transferable.”

Erskine sees some generational differences as well. She said she’s heard from recruiters who have gotten text messages in the middle of the night from potential candidates who commonly keep in touch with friends that way but may not understand the need for more discretion when interacting with an employer.

“Somebody straight out of college is used to a text message or tweeting so they have a different style of communication. Someone in their career longer may be a bit more formal,” she said. “You are a seeing a blending of how those styles come together.”

That’s a blend that applicants need to get right lest they risk offending a potential boss.

"You see people who are used to communicating and not using punctuation or capital letters,” Erskine said. “That could really turn off one employer, but for another it may be exactly how they like communicating. It’s hard to judge and I would err on the side of caution.”

A world of change

Back at RehabCare, Meyer believes formal learning should play a part in solving the issue.

“It needs to start with education, not at the college level but within elementary and high schools,” she said. “There can be more of an effort on how to work together as a team.”

To some extent, Keith Womer, a professor of management science and dean of the College of Business Administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, agrees.

“I’ve got to lay some of the blame at our own door,” he said. “I’m not sure that colleges and universities are doing enough to emphasize those skills.”

A report from Womer’s school bearing the grim title “Skill Gaps: The Ill-Prepared Workforce,” confirms the problem exists. An UMSL survey of more than 700 people working in the business community found that written communication was the top skill gap identified among survey respondents or individuals they supervise. Others deficiencies high on the list included leadership, critical and analytical thinking and people management. Oral communication and active listening also made the top 10.

“We did this in 2008, 2010 and 2012 and there is a great deal of commonality across the years,” Womer said. “We were expecting a little bit of difference frankly because there were some ups and downs in the economy during that period of time. But there is really a great deal of commonality.”

In some cases, the poor economy may play a role in revealing some of the problems. Womer said that as workforces have become leaner, companies have burdened employees with a broader range of duties that often involve greater connection with multiple departments making better communication skills essential.

Meanwhile, critical thinking has become more valuable as mundane tasks like call centers, typing pools and assembly lines have migrated to external sources.

“More and more of the workforce is not doing routine things,” he said. “Routine things are getting automated or outsourced so they are asking people to do a wider variety of work and asking them to interact at different levels in the organization."

He said the result is a workplace environment that doesn’t look like it once did.

“It sounds a little bit trite but people have to be ready for a world of change,” Womer said. “They have to be able to learn new things. These soft skills are just examples of some of the things that people are going to have to do well. Next year or five years from now, there may very well be others.”

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