In his job as a lead web developer for the U.S. Mint, Nathan Wallace makes a point of listening closely to his clients and colleagues.
Then he goes a step further.
“Sometimes, what they need is not what they’re asking for,” said Wallace, a graduate of the Georgetown University Master’s in Information Technology (IT) Management program. “Really, just listening for what they need is sometimes more important.”
For Wallace, that means not just listening, but learning to empathize and make the customer’s needs your own. It requires a special awareness and the kind of communication skills not typically taught in technology classes. And, increasingly, it’s what employers are looking for in new college graduates, particularly those in the STEM fields.
“The rate of change has become faster, and if you don’t have a good way to collaborate or communicate in solving problems in a team, you won’t be able to adjust,” said Maria Trujillo, former faculty director for Georgetown’s Technology Management program. “So it’s really an issue of adjusting to that environment and to that rapid change.”
In a recent survey by Morning Consult for the educational services firm Cengage, hiring managers and human resources professionals put a premium on these “soft skills,” with 74 percent saying listening skills are valuable, 70 percent noting attention to detail, and 69 percent citing effective communication.
A Teachable Skill
While some people are just naturally better communicators than others, the good news is that soft skills can be taught. In 2017, researchers at MIT’s Sloan School of Management studied a soft skills training program at a garment factory in Bangalore, India, and found that the program returned 250 percent on investment and empowered workers to request more advanced skills training and save for their children’s education.
Technology leaders say soft skills are especially critical in high tech jobs.
In 10 years, “a liberal arts degree in philosophy will be more valuable than a traditional programming degree,” entrepreneur Mark Cuban said last year. That’s because machines can be taught to do technical tasks, but only humans can apply the results to the big picture.
It’s no wonder, then, that some people refer to soft skills as “power skills.” That’s not just clever rebranding. As automation replaces more and more white-collar jobs, these will be the highly sought skills of the future.
“A technology solution is always required,” Wallace said. “But it doesn’t really push goals forward. It doesn’t set priorities.”
Indeed, Wallace’s career trajectory seems to prove Cuban right. He wasn’t a philosophy major, but he chose something that would have been deemed equally impractical just a few years ago: sculpture. But after graduating from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, and getting a job in an art gallery, he started teaching himself 3D printing. Now that transition—from three-dimensional art, to 3D technology, to web design—doesn’t seem that impractical at all.
A Time-Honored Truth
Several years ago, Google launched an in-house study of what makes a good company team, the kind that comes up with innovative ideas. After accumulating reams of evidence and searching vainly for patterns that didn’t exist, it hit upon something many of us learned in elementary school (but might have forgotten). It wasn’t about intelligence or individual accomplishments. The most successful teams were inclusive, they sought input from everyone, and they truly valued people’s feelings.
“You get those people who know how to play together—they produce things that are better,” said Trujillo. “You see it in the final product.”