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10 Ways to Bridge the Soft Skills Gap

BruceTulgan.jpgBy Bruce Tulgan

The No. 1 challenge with today’s young talent is a problem hiding in plain sight: the ever-widening soft skills gap. 

Today’s newest workers have so much to offernew technical skills, new ideas, new perspectives, new energy. Yet too many of them are held back, often unwittingly, because of their weak soft skills. I explore this issue in my new book, Bridging the Soft Skills Gap: How to Teach the Missing Basics to Today's Young Talent (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, September 2015).  

When employees have big gaps in their soft skills, there are significant negative consequences: Potentially strong hires are overlooked. Good hires go bad. Bad hires go worse. Misunderstandings abound. 

If you employ young people, the soft skills gap is your problem. That’s the bad news.

Here’s the good news: You can bridge the soft skills gap, and doing so will give you a huge strategic advantage when it comes to hiring the best young talent by getting them on board and up-to-speed faster, improving performance management and raising retention rates.

Here’s how:
1. You cannot hire your way around the soft skills gap, but you can build in soft skills criteria systematically in every aspect of your staffing strategy and hiring process.
2. You cannot guarantee that every new hire will start at an optimal level when it comes to important soft skills, but you can build soft skills training into your onboarding process and provide up-to-speed training.
3. If you are going to invest in developing the soft skills of your new young employees, then you better also make sure to protect that investment by making your employees co-investors in the learning process. As long as they are actively engaged in learning skills they value—with your support—they are much less likely to think about leaving. 
4. If you want today’s young employees to buy into soft skills development, take the time to make the case for why the skills you want them to learn are not just good for you and your business, but are also going to be valuable to them. Stress that these skills are broad and highly transferable and that they never become obsolete.
5. Help young employees own the learning by giving them a concrete role in the process and getting them actively involved in the training. Can they bring some of their own ideas to the table? Can they help you define learning goals? Identify sources of content or create original content? Teach some of the lessons?
6. Make sure young workers have opportunities to practice what they are learning on the job and to gain recognition, rewards and advancement through active participation. Pay close attention to the employees who really get into it, as they are likely the ones who will stay and build careers in your organization.
7. Remember that today’s young employees are highly accustomed to self-directed learning: If they are eager to learn something, you cannot hold them back in today’s information environment. They will go out into the endless sea of information and people online and navigate their own course. Before you know it, they will be surprising you with their thoughtfulness, originality and engagement in learning.
8. If your organization has a strong positive culture by design, then you need to be in alignment. What are the high-priority soft skills behaviors? What are you doing in your sphere to drive and support and reward those behaviors in everything you do as a leader?
9. If your organization lacks a strong positive culture (or any culture), you need to create a culture within your own sphere—not just for the young talent, but for everyone. You don’t need to start a revolution, but you can be a little bit of a maverick.
10. What high-priority behaviors are most important in your sphere? What behaviors drive competitive differentiation? Make these behaviors the foundation of your culture. Focus on them relentlessly, and systematically drive those behaviors throughout your human capital management practices. And start doing everything within your power to drive and support and reward those behaviors in every employee.
Bruce Tulgan, @BruceTulgan on Twitter, is founder and CEO of Rainmaker Thinking Inc., a management research and consulting company in New Haven, Conn. 

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