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Tapping Into Hidden Talent By Recognizing Soft and Other Skills

Published May 11, 2020 by Susan Moore

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the disruption of entire industries along with the way work can be done. And as technology and other forces reshape the nature of work, recognizing soft and other skills as real drivers of success can have more profound effects on rebuilding a high performing workforce, regaining employment and choosing good careers and education pathways than ever before.

Recently, Greg Hambrick, co-founder and CEO of the skills identifying company Fast Forward Works; Dr. Fred Oswald, organizational psychologist and professor at Rice University’s School of Social Sciences and Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences and Director of Graduate Studies; and Mandy Williams (AKA Black), managing partner at RED+BLACK, recently shared their research, analysis and personal experience to help employers, educators and community leaders understand just how important recognizing soft and cognitive skills can be.

The conversation was part of the UpSkill Houston initiative’s UpSkill Works Forum Series, hosted by Partnership Senior Vice President of Regional Workforce Development Peter Beard, and centered on:

  • How employers can focus hiring practices on skills to tap into a talented and diverse workforce; 
  • How individuals can identify the skills they possess and highlight them while pursuing employment; and
  • How recognizing and developing soft and cognitive skills can help workers and students excel.

Soft skills, including teamwork, communication, time management, empathy and negotiation, have applications across diverse industries and occupations. According to Hambrick, whose company helps organizations and individuals identify their cognitive skillsets, they are generally dynamic and are learned through experience. 

Job analysis can drive better hiring decisions

Most hiring decisions are based on what a hiring manager can measure. Soft and cognitive skills are difficult to measure; grades and standardized test scores are far easier. But “clearinghouses” that screen candidates heavily based on education are likely weeding out candidates who, based on the skills they possess, would be good fits. Thus, talent is and can remain hidden because organizations simply don’t know enough about their candidates.

Employers can identify specific skills needed on a team or by a new employee by looking at two things. First, what key skills do high performers in similar roles possess. Second, what past issues or absence of certain skills caused problems within a workplace or contributed to a former employee’s transfer or termination. Once these skills are identified, employers can adjust recruiting strategies to find candidates who possess them and consider training programs develop and strengthen these skills, Oswald noted. Employers can also assess how far a candidate (or employee) with those skills can progress within an organization.

This type of attention to skills on an employer’s side – as opposed to attention just to education or prior work experience – can particularly help overlooked populations like veterans or second-chance individuals who have a variety of skills be recognized as fits, Oswald and Hambrick said. 

Diversifying how employers seek and select talent can also diversify a workforce, Oswald said. 

“Grades are important to reflect knowledge, but knowledge is, obviously, not the only component of a good employee,” Oswald said.

For their part, job candidates can list on their resumes the skills they believe they have and then be prepared with examples that demonstrate these skills, if asked during an interview. Interviewers can tease out these skills by asking leading questions, Williams said.

Recognizing skills helps students plan for careers build confidence

The earlier skills can be measured the better because students can be made aware of their strengths and deficiencies. Once students recognize these skillsets within themselves and begin to understand them as foundational for various careers or educational curricula, they can begin to more clearly identify their own career and education paths, Hambrick said. 

Hambrick noted that we generally describe high achievers to be students who make high grades or score high on standardized tests. We aren’t guiding and assisting the students who are generally not considered to be high achievers by helping them understand the strong and valuable skills they do possess, like teamwork, leadership or creativity. By doing that, we can empower them to believe in their own potential, Hambrick said.

“When you can show somebody that in an objective way, it makes a huge difference on their outlook and I think raises the ceiling on what they are able to accomplish,” he said.                   

AI will enhance the need for soft skills

Hambrick, Oswald and Williams believe that soft skills will remain critical – if not become more critical – as automation of certain repetitive and routine tasks becomes more widespread and changes the way individuals and teams function and work gets done.

Skills that underlie human-to-human interaction, such as communication, negotiation, empathy, will remain necessary and individuals who possess them will become more highly prized.

“You’re always going to need individuals with the ability to adapt to change and manage the human side of work,” Williams said.

The UpSkill Works Forum Series is a series of interviews with business and community leaders, policy makers, and leading thinkers on the key workforce issues our region confronts.

Learn more about Fast Forward Works here. Learn more about Dr. Fred Oswald’s work with Rice University here. Learn more about RED+BLACK here. See the UpSkill Houston and RED+BLACK Soft Skills series here

Skills assessment resources can be found through the Society for HR Management. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management and the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology.

Related Reading: Hiring for Heart, Hunger and Humility: Employer Partners Share Truths About Human Skills and Hiring Decisions.

Executive Partners