With the current climate causing widespread career uncertainty, many professionals are looking for opportunities to broaden their skill set to stop their career from stalling. But how can you work out the areas you need to focus on to plug any skills gaps? How can you present your skill set during the job search?

A well-balanced skill set is a must for any serious jobseeker. But there’s a big difference between soft and hard skills, and the way to showcase them to a potential employer. In our Keeping Your Career on Track insights series, Lucy Bisset, Director of Robert Walters and Walters People North West, answers the common questions that arise when it comes to evaluating your skill set.

What’s the difference between hard and soft skills? What makes a transferable skill?

Hard skills are easier to quantify than soft skills, and they tend to be technical, usually in a specific field of knowledge or expertise, and often are formally certified, for example coding or SAP. They tend to relate to the acquisition of knowledge in structured, formal ways.

Transferable skills are skills that are easy to transfer between different jobs, sectors and even careers. Hard skills are less transferable. For example, in HR a hard skill might be knowledge of specific local employment laws, or the ability to recruit in one niche sector. Looking more widely, proficiency in one very local language would be another example. Soft skills are more transferable because they are needed in all professions. The more soft skills you have, the more options you have.

Why is it important to have a breadth of skills?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer here because it really depends on the job position. For example, in the case of a mechanical engineer or R&D manager, the lack of hard skills would be unacceptable, whereas a lack of certain soft skills would be more tolerated.

But in other professions, soft skills are much more important. In sales, for example, you wouldn’t be expected to be a technical expert in what you’re selling. But you do have to have the soft skills – the ability to engage people, build rapport, listen actively, close a deal.

How can you demonstrate your mix of skills during the job search?

Recruiters screen candidates for hard skills pre-interview – these are often clear from the CV. You can’t assess soft skills from a CV, but you can assess lots of them from an interview situation.

Because soft skills are often about people and communication, your interview is always a kind of test of them. Interviewers need to interact with you to really get a sense of your level of soft skills. Or if it’s an internal interview, they can also talk to people who have experience of managing and interacting with you every day.

If you do want to develop, you could consult with a mentor or expert in that specific skillset. Use a soft learning target e.g. ‘I want to get better at listening actively’ or ‘I will respond more positively to feedback’' as a lens to practise in your daily working routine.

Hard skills are easier to evidence, whereas soft skills require more storytelling. STAR stories are great for communicating soft and transferable skills, especially if you’re moving between industries and functions, because they help you translate experience from one industry to another. Showing how you ’influenced change within a complex stakeholder structure’, for example, is a tale that can resonate whether you did it in a learning consultancy or a legal firm or a bank.

Which skills matter as your career develops?

In lots of business cases, soft skills are key for success in terms of performance and promotion. The requirements for technical skills at a senior level come down, while the emphasis on soft skills grows. This stands to reason, because at this level you need to demonstrate things like leadership, people management abilities and influencing skills.

If you are doing a technical role where hard skills are more important and you have excellent soft skills as well, especially compared to your peers – then you have more potential to transfer to senior managerial and commercial roles.

How can you spot gaps in your skill set?

To work out what’s lacking or needs improvement in your skill set, you need to be actively listening and really ready to change. Some people say they want to improve but in reality, they’re not actually that open to constructive feedback. If you do want to develop, you could consult with a mentor or expert in that specific skill set. Use a soft learning target e.g. ‘I want to get better at listening actively’ or ‘I will respond more positively to feedback’' as a lens to practise in your daily working routine.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. For job interviews, people will always prepare questions about things like expectations of role, potential challenges and opportunities. But I see very few candidates ask the recruitment consultant or the HR person for direct, constructive feedback about how they performed at interview in terms of soft skills. That’s the best opportunity to get feedback and develop insight into your own soft skills right there.

How do you approach plugging skills gaps?

Lots of people don’t appreciate the value of recruitment consultants and HR professionals when you want to know more about gaps in your skill set. Big companies will often have talent development experts or Centres of Excellence who you can consult about the gaps in your skill set. They are also very good on what’s needed in your sector and for your next promotion, all of which can help you plan.

Finally, we need to understand that different people have different strengths and weakness, and some soft skills, while desirable, may not be essential in your line of work. Some soft skills are very hard and time-consuming to acquire, so you need to prioritise – if a soft skill isn’t essential for success in your profession, you probably want to focus on something else first. If you only focus on what’s lacking, you may miss the opportunity to excel in another area.

For many very technical people, such as in law, tech and finance, stepping up into management or strategy can be a very painful transition because they just don’t have the soft skills. Stepping up takes them away from the things they most love doing. But if a person really wants to develop their soft skills, they could explore stretch projects and opportunities to grow even outside work – you can develop a lot of soft skills by managing a sports teams or organising a complex volunteering project.

There’s also of course lots of training available to help you develop things like leadership skills, team-building and communicating with greater impact. Take every opportunity to practise, listen with humility, and ask for feedback.

Which skills will be essential for the future workplace?

Employers are putting more and more emphasis on soft skills. It’s easy to train many hard skills e.g. how to use a new system or understand a new piece of industry regulation, but it’s much more difficult to train an employee in a soft skill such as flexibility, a sense of urgency, the ability to handle pressure, or emotional intelligence.

In our current economic environment, everything is constantly changing so much and so fast that hard skills which were once super-valuable and sought after may not be so in the future. A key soft skill for me would be adaptability – a mindset that allows you to take on new skills and cope with rapidly changing scenarios. Another is collaboration, which is related to teamwork, the ability to influence, communication and so on – this is very important for lots of companies, especially with agile working styles and rapid team changes.

Take a look at our top pick of future skills to boost your employability.

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