Why soft skills matter for graduates and businesses alike

Team-working, creativity and problem-solving are in demand among hiring managers

Why do companies choose one job applicant over another? Ask any number of experienced interviewers that question and you will most likely get a different set of answers from each of them.

For some, the successful candidate will need to be a good fit for the company’s culture while others will demand a skillset that will ultimately help strengthen the firm that hires them. A few might tell you they want graduates who can solve problems and others will want reliable, self-motivated employees who will understand, meet, and exceed their employer’s expectations.

Whether they mention any, all, or none of the above, what they will rarely say is that the successful candidate should have come top of the class at university or that they will be hired only if they possess a first-class honours degree.

Achieving top marks in a traditional degree course might once have secured students with the university equivalent of a golden ticket that made landing a job after college little more than a formality. However, when assessing the job readiness of modern-day college graduates, employers are increasingly veering towards those with skills that are rarely taught formally at third-level.


Technical knowledge remains important, of course, but research shows employers now look to so-called “soft skills” such as a candidate’s ability to lead, to problem-solve, to innovate, to build relationships, to adapt rapidly and communicate effectively. They will often cite these abilities ahead of the “hard skills” traditionally associated with the qualifications achieved at college.

As the advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and automation promise wholesale change across sectors, the changing needs of the workplace are such that far greater emphasis is now placed on an ability to cultivate a workforce with a significant soft skills capability.

‘Effective communication’

"At graduate level, we're assessing for potential to develop and progress, so skills, such as effective communication, entrepreneurial actions, organisational and problem-solving skills are key," says Evanna McGrath, graduate programme manager at Lidl.

“It’s important to recruit graduates with a growth mindset, who are looking for opportunities to develop and learn, and who are adaptable and open to change,” she adds.

In a study across 100 metropolitan areas in the US earlier this year, LinkedIn identified a shortage of 1.4 million people with communications skills compared with a shortage of 472,000 with software development skills.

Soft skills may have traditionally been associated with public-facing jobs but according to US analytics research firm Burning Glass Technologies, more than a quarter of all talent requirements in even the most technical career areas (such as IT, healthcare, and engineering) are now for 'baseline' or soft skills.

Mike McDonagh, managing director of Hays Recruitment says graduates who have had the chance to craft some of these skills “add another layer of value to the contribution a graduate can make, even in their early career”.

“Think of a software developer who can talk to a client or colleague and through their communication skills can better understand the brief or specification on an assignment or piece of software they’re being asked to design. Think of an accountant who is able to communicate difficult decisions in a more empathetic way, a solicitor who can negotiate better and a sales person who is better able to develop rapport with customers early in their career.”

Technical skills can therefore be taught but unless those who possess them also have the ability to communicate effectively, their value will be limited in most company settings.

Indeed, the often unfairly maligned general arts degree often produces exactly the type of candidate that companies now seek to hire.

"We prefer good all-round candidates who have decent grades but also have experience working in a team, an interest in the world around them and good communication skills. We have trainees in the firm who have studied music, literature and even astrophysics, as well as those who have studied law," says Eimear Power, graduate recruitment manager at Arthur Cox.

Power is not alone in her view that graduates with arts degrees are of value to employers, as they are equipped with transferable skills that can be applied in many settings.

Sean Young, Bank of Ireland Graduate Recruitment Manager: “We recruit graduates from a wide range of academic backgrounds including arts. Graduates of the arts and humanities offer transferable skills that we don’t always see from other disciplines.*

‘Alternative perspective’

“In order for the bank to grow, we need grads with diverse backgrounds. Arts grads tend to possess more creative and critical thought processes and are less prone to tunnel vision than their counterparts from more technical backgrounds. In particular, we find with arts students that they bring a new level of imagination and an alternative perspective to the way we do business.

"We have a lot of senior executives working in Bank of Ireland who come from an arts background, including our CEO Francesca McDonagh," he adds.

But how can soft skills be acquired?

Paul Vance, head of resourcing, KPMG in Ireland, says some of these skills will be picked up while students are still in the education system.

“Graduates will have picked up lots of skills by the time they finish college. Part-time work, travel, extra-curricular activities and college studies all help to develop key skills such as communication, teamwork, leadership, problem-solving, attention to detail and a commitment to continuous improvement. These traits are highly valuable for employers and graduates who excel in these areas are likely to do well in their careers.”

Depending on the course, and to some degree on the institution, colleges sometimes neglect to place sufficient focus on soft skills as they try to ensure their charges are proficient in matters relating to the more technical side of their course. This can make the hiring process that little bit more difficult for employers.

“Innovative problem-solving can be a difficult skill to find due to the fact that, in college, students are taught to apply theories to static problems or situations in order to come up with a solution,” says Eimear Power of Arthur Cox.

“This structured approach to problem-solving doesn’t necessarily work in the corporate world, where problems and situations can be more complex and dynamic,” she adds.

But how can graduates be encouraged to develop skills they were not taught at college in the first place? Vance says students should look beyond the classroom to build up those skills that will aid them in later life.

“Travelling overseas develops independence and durability to take on new challenges. Getting involved in community or social-awareness activities are also fundamental attributes that employers highly value. So I think it is about understanding how to make the most of opportunities available outside of the core college learning environment and seeing how this can translate to a CV or interview.”

First-class honours degrees

While it goes without saying that those with first-class honours degrees are more likely to end up in employment than those with lower classifications, in a world where business increasingly operates across international borders, the ability to communicate effectively and problem-solve is highly-rated and sought after in job applicants.

Bank of Ireland’s Sean Young says: “For us what will make a candidate stand out during the interview is someone who demonstrates that they are a problem-solver, understand our business and are forward-thinking as to how they could enhance it, are good innovative thinkers and that we actually get an insight into them and their personality during the interview process. All of this will add value to our business. We do expect a minimum grade of a 2.1 from an undergrad or post grad too.”

The importance of developing graduates is not lost on employers and the majority will rotate new hires through different departments as they learn about the business and build key skills.

Young says: “We don’t expect graduates to join our programme with a full set of workplace skills. We encourage graduates to step outside of their comfort zone – this will allow them to develop new skills.

“We work with them through each rotation to push themselves into new experiences which helps them grow both personally and professionally,” she adds.

The fourth industrial revolution

While the technical knowledge and competencies traditionally associated with business are easy to come by in qualified graduates and will still be needed to earn a place across the interview table, mastery of “soft skills” is what is likely to sway the employer’s decision to hire.

This is all the more important in a rapidly evolving employment landscape where the rise of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) has been predicted to mark the biggest shift in job transition since the shift from agriculture to manufacturing.

According to a report published in 2016 by the World Economic Forum, 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.

Soft skills such as communication skills, understanding, initiative and enterprise are capabilities that artificial intelligence will have trouble replicating.

Anticipating and preparing for the so-called “age of intelligence” will be critical for business and companies as they anticipate and prepare for future skills requirements.

Soft skills:

Soft skills are not easily quantifiable and are rarely taught as part of the curriculum in school or at third level.

The core soft skills which employers look for include:

Ability to work in a team

Oral and written communication

Time management and organisation

Creative problem-solving

Initiative and enterprise

Critical and analytical thinking

Ability to apply discipline, knowledge and concepts

Hard skills:

Usually refers to technical skills that can be formally taught (programming or bookkeeping) at college or elsewhere.

Transferable skills:

Skills or abilities that may be used in a variety of roles or occupations.

* This article was amended on 24/09/16 to correct an error.

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Iriseoir agus Eagarthóir Gaeilge An Irish Times. Éanna Ó Caollaí is The Irish Times' Irish Language Editor, editor of The Irish Times Student Hub, and Education Supplements editor.