If asked, it’s a fair bet that the majority of people will think that the skill most in demand in the current and future jobs market is coding.
Most people, that is, except for Jeff Weiner.
He believes that communication and leadership skills are what employers want to hire for currently. And well into the future.
As CEO of LinkedIn, he should know.
The soft skills set gap
There’s no doubt that coding skills are in demand. The pace of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies have driven an increase in the number of job roles for software developers.
Coding bootcamp organisation, Coding Dojo, also relates how coding is a skill many non-tech positions are asking for too. Visionary scientist, cosmologist and author of A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking would have been in agreement. He said, “Whether you want to uncover the secrets of the universe, or you just want to pursue a career in the 21st century, basic computer programming is an essential skill to learn.”
However, there’s also the risk of exaggeration and untruths being bandied about once AI and machine learning’s impact on the world of work is brought into a conversation. The kind of sentiment that screams “machines will take our jobs” is regularly seen in the mainstream media.
Not only is this sentiment unnecessarily alarmist, it’s also untrue. There’s a lot we’re getting wrong about AI.
Jeff Weiner’s stance concurs, and is encouraging for anyone who might be feeling that humans are becoming redundant.
“As powerful as AI will ultimately become and is becoming, we’re still a ways away from computers being able to replicate and replace human interaction and human touch,” Weiner stated at a forum exploring the future of work.
He continued, “...there’s a wonderful incentive for people to develop these skills because those jobs are going to be more stable for a longer period of time.”
Nicholas Thompson, editor of Wired, shares a similar point of view. “I think we overrate coding and engineering as a long-term profession,” he said at the same event. “It’s something that machines powered by artificial intelligence will be really good at.”
(A transcript of the chat between Nicolas Thompson and Jeff Weiner is available here.)
Companies are already experiencing difficulties in being able to recruit people with a high degree of interpersonal and communication skills.
LinkedIn regularly releases workforce reports, which analyses the data on their platform. This big data is created by both the job seekers and employers who use the professional networking site. (Although a workforce report is not created for every country in the world, LinkedIn does look at other countries besides the United States.)
In the U.S. report in mid-2018, job posting were analysed across 100 American cities. Without fail, communication skills were the number one skill in demand across all the major cities in the United States.
Soft skills have a branding problem
Communication skills is one of the seven soft skills. The other six are:
Problem solving ability
Flexibility and adaptability
It’s easy to see how all seven of these skills can have a transformative and positive impact on an organisation if employees are hired for them.
However, the term “soft skills” belies their power. Calling a particular skill a soft skill implies a kind of secondary importance.
But soft skills are just as important as hard skills, and a future-proofed workforce would be hired for both.
In 2018, Google released the findings of a study it had run looking at the best performing teams within its own organisation. Called Project Aristotle, the findings confirm the critical importance of soft skills within organisations. Even, or, perhaps most of all, in high-tech ones.
The project divided teams across Google into A and B teams to find which teams came up with the best ideas.
A teams were made up exclusively of scientists
B teams were made up of interdisciplinary professionals
The analysis revealed that the best and most productive ideas came from the B teams.
Project Aristotle further revealed that the B teams showcased a number of soft skills. These included empathy, strong emotional intelligence quotients, curiosity and generosity towards team members. All of these skills contributed to a feeling of emotional safety within the high performing B teams. People on these teams felt confident to speak up and had no fear of being ridiculed or bullied.
The benefits of having these types of skills on your team are clear, and calling them soft skills is a misnomer.
Assumptions around how soft skills are learnt have also contributed to the lack of esteem in which they’re held.
While STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects have clear degree programs dedicated to them, a misconception has existed that people simply “pick up” soft skills. We now know this is not true, and that soft skills can be taught just like any other.
The global financial meltdown in 2008, and the recession that followed in the years afterwards, also had a damaging effect on the perception of soft skills.
With financial gain and security one of the chief drivers for people to gain a tertiary education, humanities subjects started to experience a decline in student enrollment. It’s assumed that a more technical degree or qualification opens up more employment options.
LinkedIn’s data shows that to not be the case any longer.
A combination of soft and hard skills
It seems to be a human characteristic to look at the world through a polarised prism, but this is seldom helpful.
It’s not a case of developing a hard skill, such as coding. Or a soft skill, such as public speaking. Rather, it is a case of developing both.
And this is up to us as individuals in the jobs market.
It’s unlikely that academic or professional development programs will do it just yet. Students still find themselves segmented either on a hard skills or a soft skills path. A computer science program, for example, will clearly focus on coding but pay scant attention to developing leadership skills. On the other hand, a humanities course will engage and grow students’ critical thinking faculties but doesn’t provide a clear, commercial career path.
Don’t throw the coding baby out with the bathwater
Cultivating a lifelong attitude towards learning is one of the best ways to future proof your career. Understanding what your career path requires of you is one of the keys to success.
A software developer has to know how to code to an expert level. A digital marketer might not need coding expertise, but an understanding of how coding works wouldn’t go amiss.
Coding at its core, after all, is not so much a computer language, as it is digital literacy.
At the same time, investing in developing soft skills is a sound decision. Developing and maintaining the ability to empathise with humans is an important element of long-term career success.
Especially if you want to give the machines and robots a run for their money!