As COVID Increases Need for Digital Skills, Don't Neglect Soft Skills

As COVID Increases Need for Digital Skills, Don't Neglect Soft Skills
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Before the pandemic, hardly a day went by without hearing about the critical need for businesses to digitally transform their operations. “Adapt or die”, as the saying goes. As COVID accelerated the adoption of telework and new technologies, never has “adapt or die” felt more relevant.

It is not just employers feeling the pressure to adapt, workers are feeling the pressure too. Prior to the shutdowns, new technologies have been creeping their way into nearly every industry and profession, forcing workers to continuously learn and upskill.  As the pandemic drags on, companies are fast tracking their digital transformations, increasing the pressure on workers everywhere to keep up.

Unfortunately, according to a study by the National Skills Coalition (NSC), about 45 million workers, that is one-third of the US workforce, lacked even the most basic digital skills leading into the pandemic. Such large digital skill gaps might help explain, at least in part, why nearly half of digital transformation efforts by companies that attempted digital transformations pre-COVID failed. Now, nearly every employer has been forced to move work online – at least in some capacity - and those just jumping on the digital train have not fared as well as their more tech-savvy peers. The pressure is really on for organizations and workers to make digital work for them.

According to the NSC, these gaps largely exist, not from a lack of will or desire to learn, but from a lack of opportunity. A significant majority of workers with digital skill gaps said they want to develop digital skills, all they need is the support from their employers. And employers should, and quite frankly need to, provide that support if they want their COVID-induced digital transformations to succeed. However, digital skills are not an end-all-be-all for businesses. This over-emphasis on closing digital skill gaps has drawn attention away from the critical role soft skills now play for workers who are being forced to adapt to an entirely new way of working.

For decades, soft skills such as interpersonal communication, time management, and collaboration have been highly valued skills within organizations. In fact, nearly all employers value soft skills equally, if not greater than technical skills, and yet there is no universal agreement on what a makes a skill “soft”. For employers, soft skills have effectively become something that they cannot define, but they know what it is when we see it. This creates a serious problem as employers seek ways to upskill their entire staff on them. A 2019 analysis of workforce training programs by our colleague Kelsey Schaberg at the American Enterprise Institute revealed there are limited insights into how to effectively train workers on soft skills, but that these skills were actually the differentiator that helped workers sustain and advance in their careers. This will likely become even truer as we all adapt to remote work for the long haul and employees are left to their own devices at home.

The importance of soft skills today is not just about learning new ways to manage time and tasks while working from home. The US is in the midst of its worst public health crisis in a century and its worst recession since the Great Depression. To add to that, nationwide protests and riots have rocked the country in recent weeks, adding to the mounting anxiety American’s are feeling. In the face of these external challenges, it is more important than ever that workers can communicate effectively, and demonstrate teamwork, emotional intelligence, and compassion. These are the skills that will ultimately hold our virtual workplaces together as we collective push through these tough times.  

As the new normal begins to take shape, digital skills will inevitably be required in everyone’s jobs, but soft skills are going to equally important, if not more so, for workers and employers alike. At a time when companies everywhere are being forced to transform, educators, training institutions, employers, and workers must make greater investments in bridging these digital and soft skill gaps as a way of staying abreast of the rapidly evolving world of work in the COVID-era. 

Brent Orrell is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he conducts research on workforce development, criminal justice reform, and social theory. Matthew Leger is a research analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

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