Over the last decade, many employers have reported a notable work skills gap in the pool of recent university graduates. Some say that the issue is rooted in the lack of industry-specific knowledge and preparedness for the field, while others claim that the soft skills of young Bachelor’s and Masters graduates are underdeveloped. In this article, we dissect the importance of both categories and take a look at the factors that make hard and soft skills desirable for companies.

The uniquely human nature of soft skills

So, why are soft skills – the hard-to-measure interpersonal qualities such as communication and teamwork – such a major part of the assessment when recruiting young professionals? Part of the reason is that in an age of digital dominance and smart technologies, soft skills remain difficult to replicate by machines. Employers value those uniquely individual competencies which enable graduates to interact with multicultural teams, make complex decisions, solve problems strategically, and adapt to an ever-changing workforce.

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This can be observed even in sectors which are known to be highly analytical or tech-driven. According to a report published by the University of Limerick (Ireland) examining several career trajectories which are growing quickly, the world of fintech (short for financial technology) deems analytical and technical skills important. However, the industry is so fast-paced that “the ability to effectively communicate complex information across multiple platforms” is actually paramount.

Moreover, in the future traditional interpersonal skills such as speaking, presenting, and critical thinking will be indispensable, says Alex Sarlin in an article for Coursera. Since technical work does not happen in a vacuum, digitally savvy professionals increasingly need to demonstrate interpersonal and leadership skills while also being able to work side by side with employees who possess the same skill set. For example, he cites the 2015 National Association of Colleges and Employers survey, which found out that when recruiting new graduates, companies value leadership skills most. The second place is taken by the ability to work in a team, after which come problem-solving and written communication skills.

Technical skills should not go unnoticed either as they are also essential for many job positions open to graduates. Practical skills such as advanced IT competencies and the ability to read and understand complex stats and write industry-specific manuals or reports are commonly found to be in short supply and high demand, according to graduate careers website Prospects.

Shrinking the skills gap with interpersonal qualities

Soft skills are essential for securing a job placement after graduation and for building a steady career, but how difficult is it to acquire them in the first place? Although employers often classify them as hard to find during the recruitment process, it seems the issue may not be just the level of preparedness among young professionals. In a recent article in The Guardian, Sarah Steed explores a different point of view by noting that often university graduates do already possess most of the qualities that companies are looking for and find in more experienced candidates. However, they may not have the confidence and conviction to demonstrate those qualities just yet.

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The author also looks at potential ways for universities to fill that gap and help students stand out with their interpersonal skills before they graduate and enter the job-seeking process. For example, Norwich University of the Arts (UK) has developed a gamified careers support service for course participants. “Students are asked to match skills cards to the scenarios – and think about how that applies to them and the best approach to overcome practical problems. It makes them aware of the skills they already have, and the ones they’ll need in the workplace,” the article goes on to explain.

Universities bear just as much responsibility as companies and graduates in the process of shrinking the skills gap and moulding the qualified applicants that employers are looking for. Research conducted by the World Economic Forum has consistently indicated that students are interested in the opportunity to grow their network and develop new skills through extracurricular activities. At the same time, it seems many graduates find it difficult to demonstrate the skills they have developed outside their formal education. “To level the playing field, universities should be making the development of soft skills and network building a part of the curriculum,” says Pathik Pathak, Founding Director of the Social Impact Lab at the University of Southampton (UK) for the World Economic Forum.

Of course, at the end of the day, succeeding as a Masters graduate and potential job seeker is not just a matter of soft skills or hard skills. What matters is how both types of qualities go hand in hand. To shrink the skills gap further, they need to be made sense of and used in the workforce in the most balanced way possible.