Leading expert calls for investment in human capital management and soft skills training for a better ROI
In the next decade, 22 million new wage and salary jobs will be created in the U.S., but only 17 million people will be entering the workforce. (Source: The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2004-2005 Workforce Forecast). Attracting workers will become a more competitive game, and retaining workers will be essential to corporate stability and growth. The key to success in both areas, says Eva Jenkins is "soft skills training and human capital management".
Jenkins is a leading authority on human capital management, and the driving force at VIP Staffing and VIP Innovations in Washington, D.C. She is also co-author of the upcoming book Conversations on Success, a collection of powerful interviews with accomplished entrepreneurs in a variety of industries.
She cautions "Companies may acknowledge that soft skills training is important, even critical, but they fail to prioritize that training as it applies to hiring and keeping their actual workforce"
"Hard skills," by definition, are those skills that produce immediate and tangible results. "If I teach you to operate a tractor, then I can see, very quickly, if you've acquired the skill," explains Jenkins. "The result is well-defined, visible, instantly obvious and usually involves a human being gaining mastery over an inanimate object."
"Soft skills" is the term applied to the basic knowledge, values, and life skills that are necessary to obtain a job and keep it. Specific "soft" skills range from effective interview techniques and communication (eye contact, posture and body language, a firm handshake and the do’s and don’ts of a successful job interview) to dressing for success, appropriate behavior in the workplace, smart money management, conflict resolution, understanding the importance of punctuality, and demonstrating a strong work ethic in the eyes of an employer.
According to Jenkins, "Even in an economy with entry-level workers in great demand, job candidates need to have the requisite soft skills to get hired…and managers need to be able to analyze and evaluate those skills in order to make the best possible selection."
Candidates who demonstrate poor soft skills or have none at all will have trouble finding and keeping a job. On the company side, managers who have no training in understanding soft skills will "lack the ability to analyze essential indicators that can reveal a candidate's motivation for wanting a job," says Jenkins. "They'll also be deficient in knowing the qualities that a candidate should possess in order to do the best possible job for the company."
"Soft skills go to the heart of effective interaction with other human beings," says Jenkins, "which in turn goes to the heart of both succeeding in business as an individual and succeeding in business as a company."
Fixing What's Broken
"In a way, hard skills training is much easier: you teach someone a task and then assess his or her ability," says Jenkins. To fix a hard skills problem, a manager can send a staff member to a take a training course. When they return, the problem is solved. Management input, aside from the cost of the course and making the time available to attend it, is zero.
But teaching and evaluating someone's soft skills is a much more complicated process. To transform an employee, constant feedback, continuous involvement, encouragement and attention will be required. "The acquisition of a soft skill involves behavior modification and that puts an additional burden on company management," explains Jenkins "Unfortunately, in a world where time is at a premium and management wants effortless and immediate solutions to any problem, soft skills seems like an easy 'line item' to delete. And although it may be easy, it is most certainly short-sighted."
A Longer Measuring Stick
During her rich history in staffing, Jenkins says she's had many a discussion with prospective clients about the usefulness of training, specifically training in the change management skills area. She notes that many professionals challenge the value of this type of training. "The claim is that soft skills are superficial…almost like window dressing…and therefore not critical to success."
"You cannot easily measure the impact of a soft skills training program," acknowledges Jenkins. "Since it's difficult to measure, many human resource managers mislabel the training as a bad investment of time, effort, and money because they can't immediately see the 'pay-off' that the training provides." She observes that even more forward-thinking companies with managers who think soft skills training is a good idea are likely to decide to "put it off until next year…or the year after…or the year after that."
In Jenkins opinion, the notion that you cannot measure the value of soft skills training is "a bit of a red herring." She knows from experience that the tremendous benefits of successful soft skills training will manifest themselves very clearly over time. She also knows from experience that this waiting period is the stumbling block for many companies.
Jenkins believes that one of the most valuable services she provides as a human capital management specialist is follow-up. "After the training is complete, I continue to work with my clients for many months. I generally come back once each quarter for a year to conduct surveys so that the success of the soft skills training can be analyzed and evaluated regularly and consistently."
Consistency, she says, is the key, "but the problem is that management and human resources are reluctant to accept that fact. Measuring success is often done haphazardly, sending out the message throughout the corporate structure that soft skills don't matter."
Jenkins, herself a mother, sees a parallel between good parenting and good business. "When children exhibit bad behavior, moms and dads need to provide constant and consistent discipline until that behavior is changed. It doesn't happen overnight, but it does happen with regular monitoring and input." The same paradigm, she says, applies in the workplace.
"The sad truth is that in today's business 'culture,' we no longer seem to have the time, or at least the patience, to wait for our efforts to 'bear fruit'…to let training take effect," acknowledges Jenkins. "So, most soft skills training is neglected by human resources departments, hiring directors, and everyone up and down the corporate hierarchy." As a result, she says, "no one is teaching or learning the critical interpersonal relationship skills that enable employees to work at their fullest potential to benefit themselves and their company."