When asked about my strengths, my default answers are writing and “people skills.” What do I mean by “people skills?” While definitions vary, I would define them as the communicative tools used to connect with another person. I put them in quotations because these tools carry different meanings for different people. Similar to the blurry distinction between a good writer and a great writer, there is not a universal metric by which someone can be pinpointed as “great with people” versus “good with people.” This blurriness continues to create doubt in my abilities. It is easy for me to say I’m not actually a good writer and, instead, say my professors have just graded my work easily. As it is almost impossible to measure human connection, it is also easy for me to say that I’m not actually good with people. With these doubts, which are exacerbated by societal pressures to validate skills through quantifying their value, I often find myself scrambling to explain how these immeasurable skills are actually my strengths.
The last few years have witnessed an increased emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math education and careers, a decline of humanities majors that rely more on soft skills and the resulting employability fears associated with this decline. Somewhere in the midst of this, we have mistakenly come to equate measurability — more specifically, quantifiability — to value. And considering the management system of many universities, our society’s general marginalization of soft skills can be traced back to the way our education system pits studies that rely more on soft skills against ones that emphasize hard skills.
Recently, responsibility-centered management (a university budgeting system under which each department has autonomy over its revenue and expenditures) has become the budgeting model of choice for many academic institutions. Under this model, large classes — which are more profitable — are prioritized over smaller, discussion-based classes, which typically happen to be classes that are centered around soft skills. Operating as businesses, universities further devalue subjective skills and the discussion-based classes that go along with these skills because they are not as fiscally advantageous for them. However, what is valuable to a business and what is valuable to society should not and cannot be viewed as equivalent to each other. The mere fact that classes centered on soft skills are not as profitable to universities as classes centered on hard skills does not mean soft skills themselves are not as beneficial to society as hard skills are.
Despite this prioritization of hard skills, these “soft” abilities are still valued by American companies, with 61% claiming that skills like communication and problem solving are the most valued in prospective hires. In a study conducted by Boston College, Harvard University and the University of Michigan, soft skills training was found to increase worker productivity by 12%. With this additional productivity and subsequent increase in retention rates, the training produced a 256% net return on investment after nine months. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner believes the skills gap associated with soft skills is the widest in the United States. It is undeniable: There is ample evidence to support the argument that soft skills are valuable and capitalistically productive. Even so, justifying the importance of soft skills using statistics — quantifiable numbers — on why these skills are valuable in the workplace perpetuates and perhaps even validates our society’s obsession with numbers and hard facts.
When researching why soft skills are important, the vast majority of articles are centered around soft skills’ importance in the workplace. However, the true power of soft skills lies in their unavoidable and fundamental presence in our daily lives. Self-awareness allows you to recognize your own strengths, fears, insecurities and priorities — and also those of the people around you. The ability to negotiate enables you to effectively and respectfully voice your opinions without losing sight of your perspective. More generally, communication allows you to both set and maintain expectations for yourself and others. While proficiencies in different soft skills are clearly economically profitable, more importantly, they are personally fulfilling and socially valuable. Soft skills enable us to be empathetic and self-aware members of society without losing our analytical side — that is priceless.
This is not to say that soft skills are more important than hard skills. This is simply to say that they are also important — and not at the expense of more measurable skills. As a society, we seem to have manufactured a scarcity mindset around the skills we deem valuable. With all of the multifaceted merits of both hard and soft skills, there is no need to depreciate one set of skills for the sake of another set of skills with completely unrelated assets and uses. Instead, we should take different kinds of skills for what they are: different kinds of skills, each with their own nuanced worth.
Olivia Mouradian is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.