Bridging the Soft Skills Gap in Today’s Workforce


We’ve been studying young people in the workplace since 1993 — from Generation X to the first-wave millennials and now to the second-wave millennials entering the workforce. Based on more than two decades of research, the evidence is clear: There is an ever-widening “Soft Skills Gap” in the workforce, especially among the newest young workforce.

Today’s newest young people in the workplace have so much to offer — new technical skills, new ideas, new perspective, new energy. Yet too many of them are held back — and driving the grown-ups crazy — because of their weakness in a whole bunch of old-fashioned basics. 

“Soft skills” in contrast to “hard skills” encompass a wide range of non-technical skills like “work habits” and “people skills” and “good attitude” and “a service mindset.” These skills may be less tangible and harder to define and measure than many of the “hard skills,” but they are absolutely critical to the success or failure of any individual in the workplace, especially in retail!

Think about it: Even if the cashier can operate the cash register and make correct change, there is a big difference between a cashier who is always a little bit early to work and doesn’t take long breaks and one who is chronically late or disappears for long stretches of time.

There is a big difference between the cashier who is bright-eyed and the one who is bleary eyed; the one who is smiling and the one who is rolling his eyes; the one who can help a customer when something is wrong with his order and the one who is clueless; the one who is staring at her device and talking with her peers behind the counter and the one who pays attention to the customer; the one who mumbles and the one who says enthusiastically, “Would you like a beverage today sir?”

These differences may not be thrilling and sexy, but they matter. So much! They matter to your customers, to your vendors, to that employee’s co-workers, to you and every other manager. And these differences have a huge impact on the bottom line.

Yes, your employees (of all ages) must have the hard skills to do the job, but the soft skills make all the difference — wherever they are on the technical skill spectrum.

Here’s what is truly thrilling: Soft skills can also make the difference between mediocre and good; between good and great; between great and one-of-a-kind. Just as I’ve seen the costly downsides of the soft skills gap, in our work, I’ve seen example after example proving the incredible power of soft skills.

When you combine the necessary hard skills of a job with the right soft skills, the added value is so much more than the sum of its parts. The soft skills are like a supersonic jet fuel that magnifies the scope and quality of every stitch of work

How Can You Harness the Power?

First and foremost, make sure the leadership of your organization is asking and answering this critical question: What are the high priority soft-skills behaviors that are most important in your organization? These are the soft-skills behaviors that are crucial to success, and jet fuel for competitive differentiation. 

Whatever they are, make them the foundation of your culture. Focus on them relentlessly. Develop your own poignant language and symbols — slogans and logos. Systematically drive those behaviors throughout the human capital management practices at every level of the organization.

Second, acknowledge that you cannot hire your way around the soft skills gap, but you can build in soft skills criteria systematically in every aspect of your staffing strategy and hiring process. Build those criteria into the basic job requirements in no uncertain terms from the very outset.

Be prepared to turn away candidates who do not meet these soft skills criteria, just as you would turn away candidates without the necessary hard skills.

Third, while you cannot guarantee that every new hire will start at an optimal level when it comes to important soft skills, you can build in soft skills training in your onboarding process and up-to-speed training.

Fourth, make sure your employees have plenty of opportunities to practice the soft skills they are learning on the job and gain recognition, reward and advancement through active participation. 

Fifth, don’t forget the human element — the power of highly-engaged leadership, coaching and mentoring. Don’t fall for the myth that young workers today only want to learn from computers. That’s nonsense. Remember, they love grown-ups. They want to learn from people. They want to learn from you.

Talk about the high-priority soft skills in team meetings and talk about them in your ongoing one-on-one dialogue with every single person you manage.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted specially and exclusively for Convenience Store News from Tulgan’s recent book, “Bridging the Soft Skills Gap.” The opinions expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News

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