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Soft Skills vs Hard Skills: Which Is More Important in the Workplace?

Understanding how a candidate’s technical knowledge and hard skills correlate with a role has always been an important predictor of suitability and success. Yet, there’s been a shift in priority, with employers beginning to place greater emphasis on understanding how soft skills contribute to all-around company performance. 

Consider the following:

The importance of soft skills
According to LinkedIn, 90% of employers believe a bad hire has more to do with a lack of soft skills than technical ability

While all eyes currently appear to be on soft skills, it certainly doesn’t devalue the need for hard skills. In reality, both are equally important to help understand and assess a candidate’s suitability. 

In this article, we’ll discuss soft and hard skills, how they differentiate, how to incorporate them into job descriptions, and, more importantly, how to assess a candidate’s skills during the hiring process.

What’s the difference between hard skills and soft skills?

The difference between soft and hard skills is that hard skills are job-specific abilities or knowledge learned through education, self-teaching, or on-the-job learning. On the other hand, soft skills refer to a broader set of characteristics, personal habits, and behaviors that should work alongside technical abilities to bring even more value to a role. 

While soft and hard skills will vary across workplaces and industries, all employees require a mix of soft and hard skills to succeed.

Understanding soft and hard skills and their importance in the workplace will ultimately influence how you craft your job description copy, the qualities you look for in candidates, and the questions you ask to assess said skills.

What are hard skills?

By now, you know that hard skills are learned technical skills obtained through education (formal training, self-learning, or on-the-job training). 

Historically, hard skills were considered more tangible and easier to validate, as employers relied on certificates, degrees, and work experience to tick the box. Nowadays, hard skills require the same level of attention as soft skills, as employers acknowledge that technical skills are learned through various pathways, including non-traditional fields like self-teaching. 

Any technical knowledge or training gained through work experience or education is considered a hard skill. For example, this might include:

  • A designer that has studied or self-taught skills in 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.
  • A content marketing manager with video editing skills. 

Hard skills will vary depending on the role and the industry. Let’s take a closer look at the potential hard skills required across three sectors: 

Hard skills

Data AnalystRetail AssociateUX/UI Designer
Business intelligence tools
Structured Query Language (SQL)
Data visualization
Basic math
Money handling skills
Industry expertise and product knowledge
Sales skills
Tech literacy
Design thinking
Decision mapping
Front-end coding (basic)

[Read more: Four Ways to Adopt Skills-Based Hiring in Retail]

What are soft skills?

Soft skills are described as a person’s attributes and interpersonal skills, which influence how they complete a task, work in a team, deal with customers or clients, and manage conflict resolution. 

The main difference between hard skills and soft skills is that, while technical or hard skills are relevant to the tasks you might do in the role, soft skills refer to how you perform those tasks in a team context. While hard skills are often more quantifiable and easier to assess, soft skills result from your personality traits and experience; thus, they can be harder to determine using traditional hiring methods.

Consider the following situational examples of how soft skills may present in the workplace:

  • Being assigned a deadline and completing the task on time (soft skill: time management).
  • Adapting the onboarding process for a new employee as you can see they’re struggling to understand and keep up with the training (soft skills: patience and empathy).
  • Talking through pain points with a disgruntled client until you find a middle ground (soft skill: conflict resolution).

Every role will value and require different soft skills, meaning there’s no one size fits all approach. Let’s take a closer look at common soft skills across the three roles mentioned above:

Soft skills

Data AnalystRetail AssociateUX/UI Designer
Critical thinking
Team collaboration
Client communication
Customer service 
Conflict resolution
Multitasking skills
Time management
Communication skills

Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills: Which predicts success?

According to a LinkedIn report surveying nearly 300 hiring managers, more than half of the respondents believe the lack of soft skills among employees is limiting their company’s productivity. 

While there’s a compelling case in favor of both soft and hard skills, there’s one simple truth we cannot ignore: employers are becoming increasingly aware of the value soft skills add to the workplace, knowing full well that technical capabilities don’t amount to much without them. 

Are soft skills really the best predictor of success? How can hiring managers design a recruitment process that takes these skills into account? How can employers find the perfect balance between soft and hard skills? And is there really even a debate for hard skills vs soft skills? Let’s delve a little deeper. 

The case for soft skills in hiring

Soft skills are in high demand in just about every industry and company. According to LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends report, 92% of respondents think soft skills are equally, if not more, important than technical expertise. Yet, 89% of respondents admit to having a very or somewhat difficult time finding job seekers with the requisite attributes. 

Hard skills vs soft skills
According to LinkedIn, the majority of employers believe soft skills are just as much, if not more, important than hard skills

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence at Work, conducted a study of more than 500 executives. His research concluded that emotional intelligence — or as we know it, soft skills or interpersonal skills — was a better predictor of top performance than previous experience or IQ. A sentiment shared by global players — including Amazon, Xerox, and Tesla — who have designed recruitment structures around hiring based on soft skills.  

 Here are a few potential theories that help explain the possible shift toward soft skills:

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 job seekers 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 hard 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 the 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 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 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 experts in something.

Hiring for hard skills vs. soft skills

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

Companies that hire successfully with low turnover have learned how to construct their interview process to cover soft and hard skills based on skill matrix templates of current employees’. 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. In the past, a candidate might’ve impressed a recruiter in the interview but had no mastery over their field. However, an algorithm is not biased based on a resume or stellar presentation. Innovative companies have even begun customizing their interview process for specific soft skills applicable to each open position. 

There’s a place for both hard skills and soft skills in the workplace, and it’s essential you know how to assess both in your hiring process. Let’s explore a couple of options below.

1. How to add hard and soft skill requirements to your job description 

Whether you want to move away from degree-based hiring or are looking for an effective way to understand each of your role’s needs, switching your job description copy to a skills-first approach is a great place to start. 

What exactly does this mean? Instead of focusing on formal qualifications or experience, which will give you nothing more than assumed suitability, a skills-based job description allows you to lead with the soft and technical skills required for a candidate to succeed in the role. 

Let’s review the following requirements from an actual job post on Indeed:

Job posting skill requirements
An example of the skills and qualifications required in an Indeed job posting

The employer successfully incorporates the hard and soft skills needed to succeed (plus additional skills), giving candidates a deeper understanding of the relevant skills required. However, they’ve also added education and professional experience requirements, which may eliminate potentially suitable candidates, particularly given that 65.1% of American workers don’t have degrees. 

Consider Vervoe’s hard and soft skills list example for a data analyst role:

Hards skills:Soft skills:
– Devise plans to collect data that can be used for your analysis.
– Clean the data to remove irrelevant pieces.
– Analyze data and derive meaningful outcomes through the identification of patterns and trends.
– Present your findings to the relevant stakeholders of the organizations to what the data pertains.
– Evaluate the differences once a recommendation is implemented.
– Adequate decommissioning and removal of data that is no longer needed in a safe manner.
– The ability to problem-solve.
– Able to analyze large sets of data.
– High level of communication for creating reports and delivering them.
– Extremely detail-oriented.
-An extremely analytical and business-focused mind.

This example differs from the Indeed one above as it explains how the hard and soft skills correlate with the role, giving the candidate a clearer understanding and breakdown of what tasks are required. 

2. How to assess hard and soft skills in the recruitment process

The most effective way to assess a candidate’s technical skills and soft skills is through a skills assessment, also known as a pre-employment test. 

Let’s take Vervoe’s AI-powered skills assessments, for example. Our ready-made and custom-built assessments are designed specifically to test the hard and soft skills required in a role. Our platform takes candidates through a job simulation, asking a range of scenario-based questions — including multiple choice, video, audio, text-based, and spreadsheet — that relate to the role. 

Vervoe’s intuitive AI automatically grades candidates and ranks them according to their performance. This gives added reassurance that the top contender has relevant skills that are verified. 

Let’s look at some sample Vervoe questions for a Data Analyst Skills Assessment: 

Data Analyst Skills Assessment

Data Classification
Question Type: Multiple Choice
Data Models
Question Type: Multiple Choice
Critical Thinking
Question Type: Audio
You are working on a sentimental analysis project that classifies text as positive, negative, or neutral. The label you are trying to predict, described by the other features (here, input text), is known as?According to you, what will happen as the complexity of a model increases?Describe a time when you have had to make a decision without having all of the necessary information. How did you come to a conclusion?

Final thoughts

There’s no denying that the rise of soft skills is here — with the need for finely tuned emotional and social skills predicted to continue increasing as artificial intelligence and automation become more prominent. 

Yet, soft skills aren’t necessarily more important than hard skills. Instead, both complement one another in demonstrating what a candidate can do and how they will do it, showing the whole picture to prospective employers. 

For employers to find the most suitable candidates, the conversation needs not to be about which is more important in the hard skills vs soft skills debate, but rather how they can assess candidates on both types of skills, understanding the importance of both. This is where Vervoe can assist. 

Vervoe’s AI-powered skills assessments take candidates through a job simulation, asking various scenario-based questions to assess candidates’ hard and soft skills. Our AI automatically grades and ranks candidates, presenting only the top performers who have the abilities necessary to succeed in the role. 

To find out more about Vervoe’s skills assessments, book a demo with our friendly sales team.

Stacie Garland

Stacie Garland

"Stacie is Vervoe's Director of Assessment Solutions. With a passion for the human mind and human behaviour, she obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and Master’s in Health Psychology. Her professional career started working in a global recruitment agency where she helped people find their next role & worked with businesses to hire the best people, which then evolved to training & developing early-career recruiters in sales and recruitment. Now at Vervoe, she helps customers develop custom assessments and leveraging AI/Machine Learning to rank the best performers for a role, before they get the job. At Vervoe, she built and manages the division of the business responsible for creating assessments working with Enterprise clients from start-ups, international consultancies, Government departments, to one of the largest employers in the world, and many more. Stacie holds a Masters in Psychology from the University of Auckland, and has had a successful career in Recruitment and Training.

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