August 28, 2023  |  Purdue Global

Soft skills are those personality traits and good work practices that enable you to get along with others, be an effective communicator and leader, and succeed at your job. These skills refer to your social and emotional traits and habits — and they are more difficult to train for and assess.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has identified several competencies that help prepare students for a successful transition into the world of work. The eight soft skills (or “career readiness competencies”) included in this article are from the NACE list.

“We encourage students to highlight these competencies on their resumes, in cover letters, and in interviews as they speak directly to what employers are seeking across virtually every industry and job function,” says Jennifer Katz, director of the Center for Career Advancement at Purdue Global.

Why Are Soft Skills Important?

“Developing strong soft skills is important for career mobility and durability,” Katz says. “While a candidate may get hired due to their technical abilities, it’s often their soft skills that create or limit ongoing growth and success.”

Soft skills are transferable across industries, job functions, and employers. “Whereas technical skill requirements may vary, soft skills are important and applicable no matter the field or position — making them especially helpful for career changers to demonstrate how they can meet prospective employers’ needs even if they are coming from an unrelated field.”

Here’s a research-backed list of the soft skills employers are seeking:

1. Communication

The ability to express thoughts and ideas clearly and effectively is a highly sought-after skill. A good communicator can speak to groups of people with ease, is able to express ideas to others without creating conflict, and can write or edit many different types of communication clearly and effectively.

According to NACE, employers identify critical thinking and communication as the top two most important career readiness skills; they also show two of the most significant gaps between the level of importance and level of proficiency.

“This tells us there is an opportunity for students to stand out by showing employers how they can meet their needs by demonstrating proficiency with these skills,” Katz says. “Demonstrating great communication skills can help others see you as a valuable member of the organization.”

2. Critical Thinking

Critical thinking, the second most important soft skill on this list, is always in need. Being a critical thinker means you possess sound judgment to evaluate and analyze issues, form decisions, and overcome obstacles. Employers value people who can think critically and resolve issues quickly and effectively.

According to global management consulting firm McKinsey and Company, the demand for skills such as critical thinking and decision-making is expected to grow by 19% in the U.S.  and by 14% in Europe through 2030.

Katz says demonstrating this skill to potential employers is important. “It is one thing to say that you are a critical thinker, but another to be able to share an example of a project you worked on in which you demonstrated critical thinking and how that impacted the outcome of the project,” she explains.

3. Leadership

To achieve common goals, leaders harness the strengths of team members. They also use interpersonal skills to coach and develop others, inspiring and helping them to reach their full potential. Displaying leadership skills can raise your visibility within an organization, which can lead to more opportunities.

Examples of leadership behavior from NACE include:

  • Motivate and persuade yourself and others around you.
  • Use diverse resources and feedback to inform direction.
  • Apply innovative thinking to go beyond traditional methods and explore additional opportunities.
  • Be a role model by tackling projects with confidence and a positive attitude.
  • Inspire others by being their cheerleader and building mutual trust.
  • Plan, oversee, and successfully complete projects.

4. Teamwork

Good team members collaborate and build strong relationships with coworkers and customers. They’re able to work within a team structure and can negotiate and manage conflict. Employees displaying good teamwork skills are those who cooperate with peers, contribute ideas and suggestions, and are responsible and have respect for a difference of opinions, customs, and preferences.

Employers look to team players to help build an office culture that’s friendly, which helps retain workers and attracts top talent. Being collaborative with your coworkers also strengthens the quality of your work.

5. Professionalism

Professionalism is not one skill. It is the blending and integration of a variety of skills. People who model professionalism are punctual, work productively with others, manage their workload, and understand the impact of non-verbal communication on professional work image. The professional behaves with integrity, acts responsibly, is ethical, and can learn from mistakes.

6. Equity and Inclusion

According to NACE, someone who embraces equity and inclusion has the awareness, knowledge, and skills needed to engage equitably with people of varying races and cultures.

“The individual with equity and inclusion awareness demonstrates openness, inclusiveness, sensitivity, and the ability to interact respectfully with all people and appreciate individuals’ differences,” Katz says. “Embracing diversity also ignites thought, creativity, innovation, and inclusion.”

7. Technology

“On the surface, technical acuity may seem like more of a hard skill than a soft skill, but there are definitely some soft skill elements to this that are important,” Katz says.

The following behaviors demonstrate that someone has achieved technical competence, according to NACE:

  • Being open to exploring new technologies
  • Using technology to boost efficiency and productivity
  • Applying appropriate technology for task execution and completion
  • Managing technology to incorporate information that supports effective and timely decision making
  • Handling information, ideas, and technology to achieve goals

8. Career and Self-Development

NACE defines this career-readiness competency as to “proactively develop oneself and one’s career through continual personal and professional learning, awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses, navigation of career opportunities, and networking to build relationships within and without one’s organization.”

“Someone who is skilled in career and self-development shows an awareness of their own strengths and areas for development, identifies areas for growth, and develops plans and goals for their career,” Katz says.

How to Build and Improve Your Soft Skills

“I encourage students to do some additional, tailored research on their target employers to better understand the skills and experiences employers are seeking,” Katz says. “It’s important students do this early on in their educational journey so they have time to work on building the specific skills needed in their desired career, industry, or employer.”

Katz also recommends getting involved in projects or opportunities to practice these skills.

“Maybe there is a new project at work they can volunteer for that requires critical thinking and/or clear communication. Group projects, coursework, and participating in student or professional organizations are also great opportunities to practice demonstrating and honing soft skills,” Katz says.

Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback on how you are performing in specific skill areas. Ask peers or current or previous leaders at work. If you’re in school, ask university faculty and staff where you could use improvement.

Let Purdue Global Help You Meet Your Career Goals

While earning a degree still remains vital for many career opportunities and advancement, combining that with a demonstration of competency in these areas provides the employer with a more complete picture of the value that you could bring to the organization.

If a college degree could help you grow in your current career or launch a new one, consider earning a college degree online with Purdue Global. We offer online college degree and certificate programs for busy working adults. Contact us today to learn more.

About the Author

Purdue Global

Purdue Global delivers a fully personalized, world-class education online that's tailored for adults. We offer 175 programs, including associate's, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees as well as certificates, in areas such as business, IT, education, health sciences, nursing, criminal justice, and more.

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Views Expressed: The views expressed in this article are solely those of the faculty member/individual and do not represent the view of Purdue Global.