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Bridging the Millennial Soft Skills Gap

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(This article was adapted from the book Bridging the Soft Skills Gap: How to Teach the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent.)

A group of Peace Corps executives reported that program administrators receive emails on a regular basis from parents making suggestions and requests about the living accommodations and work conditions of their children stationed on missions around the world. One of the Peace Corps executives told me, “I just got an email from a parent saying the meals being provided don’t meet his kid’s dietary needs. Could we get this young man on a nondairy diet?” The funny thing is that generals in the Army have told me similar stories about the parents of soldiers.

Meanwhile, senior leaders in many federal agencies have been grappling with the impact of steadily rising zero- to five-year employee turnover rates among young intelligence professionals. One U.S. intelligence official told me, “No matter how hard we try to develop a profile to help us select for retention -- to predict who will be longer-term employees -- it just doesn’t work. We used to be able to do it. But it doesn’t work anymore. Maybe there is no ‘type’ anymore who stays or a ‘type’ who goes. It makes succession planning very difficult. Too often those identified for promotion end up deciding to leave, taking with them the huge investment we’ve made in them.”

What is wrong with “kids” today?

There can be no doubt that today’s newest federal employees are displaying their relative youth and lack of experience, as young people have always done. Of course, that’s part of it. But there is more to this story.

My team has been studying young people in the workplace since 1993 -- including surveys and interviews over the years with thousands of young employees at federal departments and agencies. Based on more than two decades of research, the evidence is clear: There is an ever-widening “soft skills” gap in the workforce, especially among the youngest employees. The federal workforce is no exception.

Like the technical skills gap, the soft skills gap in the workforce has been developing slowly for decades. But the soft skills gap runs across the entire workforce -- among workers with technical skills that are in great demand, every bit as much as workers without technical skills. What is more, the soft skills gap has gotten much worse in recent years.

Today’s young people in the workplace have so much to offer -- new technical skills, new ideas, new perspective, new energy. Yet too many of them are held back -- and driving the grown-ups crazy -- because of their weakness in a whole bunch of old-fashioned basics. Soft skills encompass a wide range of nontechnical skills ranging from self-awareness to people skills to problem-solving to respect for authority, citizenship, service and teamwork.

All the evidence shows that gap is widening -- there is truly a generational difference in the soft skills gap manifested by today’s young workforce. Managers tell us every day in our research some version of what one middle-aged manager told me: “When I was young and inexperienced, I may have been naïve or immature, but I knew enough to wear a tie, make eye contact, say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘yes sir’ and ‘yes ma’am,’ and when to shut up and keep my head down and do the grunt work without having to be told over and over again.”

Now wait a minute. Maybe you are thinking, “Hey! I know plenty of young people who have great soft skills!” Of course you do. And I do too. There are many young people with excellent soft skills. It’s just that there are not enough of them -- it’s a supply-and-demand thing.

The costs are great and the opportunity costs are even greater. When employees have significant gaps in their soft skills there are significant negative consequences. Potentially good hires are overlooked. Good hires go bad. Bad hires go worse. Misunderstandings abound. People get distracted. Productivity goes down. Mistakes are made. Customer service suffers. Workplace conflicts occur more frequently. Good people leave when they might have otherwise stayed longer. It robs so many young employees of greater success and causes so many managers so much aggravation and so many unnecessary costs. Yet the problem stands right there in plain sight, not even hiding.

What can you do?

If you are leader in a federal department or agency, then the soft skills gap is your problem. How can you be part of the solution? Be one of those leaders who recognizes that unlocking the power of soft skills can give your agency a huge strategic advantage when it comes to hiring the best young talent and getting them on board and up to speed faster. The result is better performance management, improved relationships and greater retention rates among the best young talent.

What’s the plan?

Step one: Make sure that you and other leaders in your agency are asking and answering this critical question: What are the soft skills behaviors that are most important in your organization? Whatever they are, focus on them relentlessly.

Step two: While you cannot hire your way around the soft skills gap, you most certainly can shine a bright light on soft skills in every aspect of your human capital management practices.

Step three: Build in soft skills training in your onboarding process. Make it clear that the high-priority soft skills are not optional but every bit as important as the technical skills. Also take the time to get employees to buy in to soft skills development by making the case for why the behaviors you want them to learn are not just good for you and your agency, but are also really valuable to them.

Step four: Help new employees own the ongoing process of learning soft skills by getting them actively involved in relevant training. Provide them with as many easy-to-use targeted learning resources as you possibly can to support self-directed learning. These can be low-tech resources just as much as high-tech, but remember these employees will be tuned in to just-in-time learning resources online. In particular, today’s young talent is used to being able to get a simple tutorial on just about any topic by going straight to a short online video with explanatory articles. If you want to have some input on the sources from which they learn, that means building and supporting easy-to-access resources that are in alignment with your training goals.

Step five: Leaders at all levels must learn to build soft-skills coaching into their management routines. Just like every other aspect of performance, build it into team communications and regular one-on-one dialogues with direct reports. Require it. Measure it. Reward people when they do it. Hold people to account when they don’t.

Bruce Tulgan is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking Inc., a management research and training firm. He is the author of multiple books including Bridging the Soft Skills Gap and The 27 Challenges Managers Face, and has written for The New York Times, Harvard Business Review and other publications. He can be reached at brucet@rainmakerthinking.com, or follow him on twitter @brucetulgan.

(Image via arka38/Shutterstock.com)

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