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Often, soft skills aren’t explicitly mentioned in the workforce, but you’d be mistaken if you concluded they held no relevance. Even if your work experience is limited to a part-time job in hospitality or retail, chances are you’ve started building a toolkit of soft skills that you’ll take with you to your future career.
In fact, the soft skills you learn in these jobs hold the key to success once you enter your chosen field, says Dr Marion Steel, the Course Director for the Bachelor of Commerce at Deakin University. ‘Soft skills affect every aspect of your career from the moment you start applying for jobs,’ she says. ‘They’re often unspoken, but all employers expect that you understand what they require in a work environment.’
To understand how soft skills function in the workplace, it’s important to know what they actually are. Dr Steel says: ‘soft skills are taking those innate human qualities, such as communication, interaction, creativity, innovation, etc. and developing these so you can apply them effectively in the workforce.
‘Communication, for example: we often just think of our ability to talk to other human beings. But if you look at any organisation today, you’ll see that we communicate with each other face-to-face, via standard communication channels like email, and often on shared or collaborative work platforms as well. So we’re actually seeing that because of the way we work, we need to have communication skills face-to-face, but also be able to communicate really effectively in an online environment.’
This includes knowing how formal communication works, what informal communication is and when it’s appropriate to use, and how to communicate goals and achievements to people ‘in a different time zone or region,’ Dr Steel says.
The great news is, you’re probably already learning and developing the soft skills you’ll need in the future: ‘The soft skills that you get in any internship, training role, part-time job or volunteer role, are actually all transferable,’ Dr Steel explains.
This is one reason why getting an internship as a university student has such a big impact on your ability to land a graduate job. ‘Your understanding of how teams work, and how they can be effective are things you can take from one job to another.’ Dr Steel says.
When it comes to working harmoniously with others, these are the soft skills Dr Steel says you need:
There are simple things you can do to improve these, according to Dr Steel. ‘When you start out in the workforce, it’s often a really good idea to watch and observe the more experienced people around you.’ Combine these observations with practice (she suggests volunteering, joining a student society or even a public speaking group).
'The soft skills that you get in any internship, training role, part-time job or volunteer role, are actually all transferable.'
Dr Marion Steel,
Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University
At the start of your career journey, when you’re deep in study or learning how to do your job, it’s easy to get caught up neglecting soft skills in favour of hard skills, or technical skills.
‘Hard skills are very specific and unique to your area of knowledge and expertise,’ Dr Steel explains, noting how this contrasts with soft skills, which are developed from a universal knowledge of how to act around other humans. But, before you start placing bets on which is better to have in the workplace, think about this:
Neither set of skills will get you very far on their own. Dr Steel says it’s the combination of both that achieves the most organisational effectiveness. Utilising your hard skills to achieve your targets, while also employing your soft skills to go above and beyond what’s expected of you.
Soft skills are just as important for the organisation as they are for you as an employee. ‘If you can’t work in a team effectively, utilising other soft skills like creativity and innovation with your technical skills, then the organisation you work for is either not going to be competitive, or it’s not going to be effective,’ Dr Steel explains.
These human-centric skills are also becoming more critical with the rise of artificial intelligence in the workforce. ‘The ability to analyse data often utilises basic AI algorithms,’ she notes. ‘But we then require people to be able to interpret, share, utilise and apply the information.’
Dr Steel also says that utilising soft skills effectively can help you advance your career: ‘When employers are looking to take you to the next level, what they’re looking for isn’t, “can you do this job?” It’s “can you move beyond this job?”’
In a rapidly changing work environment, being successful means being able to cope with change. ‘The people that are successful in organisations – and the reason those organisations are successful – is that everybody uses their technical skills and their soft skills all the time,’ Dr Steel concludes.
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