Essential skills for career success

Discover how this skill set can help you get, keep and advance in your career.

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Living, learning and working in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution means the way we conduct business is constantly changing. New technologies, industry disruptions and a changing cultural climate require flexibility and continuing professional development to keep up with changes to our “hard skills,” the technical knowledge needed to perform tasks related to your profession.

However, according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report (PDF), the changing nature of office culture, work arrangements and professional communication places an equal emphasis on so-called “essential skills,” also called soft skills, non-industry-specific strengths that allow employees to think critically, adapt to new situations and work collaboratively, as well as independently. The World Economic Forum’s report states that this skillset is of increasing in importance to employers looking for multitaskers and innovators who can leverage their uniquely human capabilities.

Keely Schneider, executive director of Workforce Partnership, a Kansas City-area employment resources organization, puts it this way: technical skills may help with a specific task, but essential or soft skills are what help us achieve a goal.

“A company is simply a legal construct for a group of people working together toward a common goal,” Schneider says. “So if you cannot communicate with others, help solve problems, listen to others and collaborate, you simply are not going to be successful in a company, no matter how excellent your technical skills may be.”

What are essential skills?

Essential skills cover areas such as communication, leadership and interpersonal relationships, skills that help in organizing, directing and collaborating on projects and let you work more effectively. According to researchers at LinkedIn, employers’ most needed soft skills included creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and time management.   

Matt Tidwell, program director of KUEC’s Integrated Marketing Communications program, says he’s learned the importance of soft skills through years of experience.

“I’ve often heard it said that technical skills get you the job, but soft skills help you keep the job (and, I would add, advance to your next job),” Tidwell says. “I certainly found that to be the case in my 25 years working for small and large companies.”

Essential or soft skills can be broken down into internal and external categories. Internal skills involve how you relate to yourself. They include traits such as critical thinking, resilience, emotional intelligence and the ability to adapt to new situations. External skills relate to working with others, such as collaboration, networking, negotiation and public speaking.

Schneider says that abilities like these—and other useful essential skills—don’t just help in the workplace. They also prepare us for challenging experiences in our everyday lives.

“The more broad our experiences in life, the better equipped I believe we are to handle complex problems, difficult decisions and ambiguous direction,” she says.

How do I learn essential skills?

Schneider says that honing essential skills can start with a college experience that includes a balanced background in hands-on learning experiences and a broad spectrum of classroom experience.

“I strongly encourage those in college to seek out experiential learning opportunities that allow them to begin to use their newly developed technical skills within the workplace,” she says. “Experiences such as internships, apprenticeships, job shadowing and even simply requesting an informational interview with someone at a company that you admire can help college students learn what their skills look like applied in the real world.”

Schneider also suggests that current students studying more STEM-based subjects such as engineering or computer science look for ways to incorporate liberal arts courses into their education to diversify their knowledge base.

“If you have a technical degree or certificate (perhaps in IT), couple it with a minor or other classes in more liberal arts disciplines like history, political science or literature,” she says. “Likewise, if you are a history major, perhaps minor or obtain a certificate in something that provides a harder, more marketable skill, such as CAD design or an A+ certificate.”

Essential skills for working adults 

Adding a minor to your in-progress college degree is one way to gain soft skills. But what if you’ve already started your career? There are plenty of professional development opportunities, including certificates, seminars, webinars and advanced degrees to build those in-demand qualities.

The KU Edwards Campus offers certificates in critical thinking and writingleadershipprofessional workplace communication and project management, in addition to degrees in Integrated Marketing CommunicationsCommunication StudiesSociology and more essential skills-related programs. KUEC’s Communications department also offers free link and learns on subjects relating to workplace communication and health.

Tidwell recommends seeking out tools and resources to get a sense of your existing competencies, and identifying necessary areas for growth, before diving into a program.

“One good place to start is with programs like Strengths Finder. By understanding your own abilities and personality strengths, it helps you apply soft skills correctly,” Tidwell says. “Even better than working on their own, I recommend students access their student services departments.  Those folks can be great resources and can point you to even more robust tools.”

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