Today’s young workforce has so much to offer – new technical skills, ideas, perspectives and energy. Yet, too many of them are holding back their enormous potential with underdeveloped soft skills.
Managers in every industry, in organizations large and small, tell us every day some version of what a manager once told me: “When I was young and inexperienced, I may have been naïve or immature, but I knew to wear a tie, to make eye contact, and when to keep my head down and do the grunt work without having to be told over and over again.”
Indeed, managers have been increasingly frustrated by the soft skills of their new young workers. In my research, I’ve seen this trend steadily rise year after year, since I began tracking generational workforce issues in the mid-1990s. What are the soft skills issues that managers complain about most frequently? Typically, here’s what they say:
- “They are unprofessional.”
- “They have no self-awareness.”
- “They don’t hold themselves accountable.”
- “They need an attitude adjustment.”
- “Their work habits are terrible.”
- “They don’t have people skills.”
- “They don’t know how to learn or communicate without checking a device.”
- “They lack critical thinking skills.”
- “They have problems respecting authority.”
What we can really derive from this information is that there is a growing gap between the expectations of employers and the reality of how young talent is showing up in the workplace. Today’s best talent may show up as masters of the newfangled, with the latest and greatest methods. But what they are missing – way too often – are the “old-fashioned basics,” or what are commonly referred to as soft skills.
What is the viewpoint of young people when it comes to the widening soft skills gap? Often, they’re uncertain about the value and usefulness of these skills when compared to the technical skills they’ve worked so hard to attain. Young people today are increasingly pressured by their schools and universities to gain absolute mastery over the “hard skills” that will set them up for success in the uncertain future. However, by providing just a little context, it is easy for them to understand how improving on their soft skills will not only help them in the job that they are doing right now but in their career overall.
Business leaders and managers are somewhat harder to convince. Often, their response goes something like this: “This should not be our problem to solve! Shouldn’t they have already learned these basics from their parents?”
The reality is that if you employ young people today, the soft skills gap is your problem. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that leaders really can bridge the soft skills gap, and doing so will give their organizations a huge strategic advantage when it comes to hiring and retaining the best young talent. They’ll be able to bring them on board and up to speed faster, get better performance from them, and improve relationships throughout the organization.
Whenever a leader or manager doubts the truth of that statement, I point them toward my leading example of how this type of soft skills coaching can work: the United States military. The Marines can take an ordinary young person and turn him or her into a Marine in just 13 weeks. Together, these young Marines make up the most effective fighting force in the history of the world. Of course, most organizations don’t have the resources that are provided to the military or the ability to run the equivalent of a boot camp for their new hires.
Luckily, you don’t have to put your young employees through a boot camp in order to have a high impact on soft skills. All it takes is a rigorous, systematic approach to coaching and training your employees on those soft skills one step at a time, just as you would approach training them on anything else. Regular, ongoing, highly structured communication is all that’s needed for organizations to start building up the soft skills of their employees (of any age!) every day.
In this blog series, I’ll break down the techniques and strategies successfully used by managers every day to build the soft skills of their teams. Don’t fall for the myth that soft skills are too intangible to improve with concrete methods! All it requires is patience and commitment, and you’ll be amazed at the results.