Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

How stronger ‘soft skills’ can make a difference in the job search

NAIT instructor and alum share tips for success

Getting ahead in your career is difficult enough at the best of times. But what about in the middle of a global pandemic?

Businesses have felt the sting, some going under or having to scramble to find a new way of doing things. The end result of this disruption is the worst labour market in decades, which creates unprecedented challenges for anyone entering the workforce or faced with a sudden career shift.

Showcase yourself to your boss, your colleagues or to a prospective new employer

Workplace professionals say this is an opportune time to take stock of your soft skills – those interpersonal qualities beyond your technical skillset that can be crucial in showcasing yourself to your boss, your colleagues or to a prospective new employer.

“This has been a great opportunity for people to stop and reflect and sort of benchmark where they are now and where they want to go,” says Milena Santoro, who teaches a workplace essentials course at NAIT.

Santoro and Edmonton-based recruiter Shannon Neighbour (Marketing  ’00) shared their advice for improving soft skills and other ways of putting your best foot forward at work.

Be clear

As a starting point, Santoro says it’s important to take a hard look at your ability to flourish as part of a team, to problem-solve, innovate and adapt rapidly to change. None of that is possible without the ability to communicate effectively.

The team environment has obviously changed in this new normal of remote working, which many say will be with us long after the pandemic has passed. Good communication skills are now even more vital for employees having to adapt to virtual collaboration and Zoom meetings.

It’s important to take a hard look at your ability to flourish as part of a team

“You can definitely miscommunicate something through how you’re delivering it but also how you’re receiving it,” Santoro says. “With good communication skills, we’re looking at effective listening and also articulating the actual message you want to deliver. So that also means good preparation.”

Neighbour views terms often associated with soft skills – communication, confidence and creativity – as fundamental life skills important for any human interaction, regardless of whether it’s in the workplace. But she acknowledges that a polished display of those skills can make a big difference in an employer’s decision to hire and promote.

“In any aspect of your life if you’re not a good communicator, you’re undoubtedly going to run into trouble,” adds Neighbour, co-owner of Svenson Neighbour Recruiting.

two women having a conversation

Be a problem solver

As new technologies change the world and workplaces, the ability to adapt will be even more critical. 

“Adaptability and problem-solving – those things are skills important for any human being, regardless of if it’s in the workplace or not,” Neighbour says.

“Adaptability and problem-solving – those things are skills important for any human being.”

In her course, Santoro extolls the virtues of flexibility and adaptability, both of which tie into change and change management.

“Soft skills are about looking at change and saying, ‘OK, I can embrace this or I can create a barrier to overcome.’ Change in this new normal – we may not like it and it might be uncomfortable but what can we take from this situation and grow from it?”

Be confident

Santoro urges her students to examine their own levels of confidence and self-esteem and consider how they manifest in the workplace. People with high self-confidence look people in the eye when they talk, they’re more willing to take risks and more ready to admit a mistake. Those with low self-esteem more often try to please everybody, they avoid initiative and are defensive to feedback, she says.  

woman waving to someone on a laptop

Be empathetic (and self-aware)

Santoro and Neighbour agree that emotional intelligence, or EQ, is the most important of the soft skills and it’s one that can be strengthened over time.

Emotional intelligence is all about empathy and the capacity to understand and manage your emotions in a positive way. Researchers say it is at least as important as cognitive intelligence for predicting career success.

Emotional intelligence is all about empathy and the capacity to understand and manage your emotions in a positive way

“It’s about managing self and your emotions,” Santoro says. “Have that self-awareness to know not only what I’m going through but also what my team members are going through and what kind of work environment I’m stepping into.”

How many job interviews come with the standard query about the applicant’s self-described strengths and weaknesses? Neighbour wonders how many job-seekers reflect on those questions in a truly meaningful way.

“It’s not about going into an interview and being like, ‘Oh, I take on too many tasks but I’m really good at organizing my day,’” she says. Instead, show that you have the deep self-awareness to be able to say, ‘I’m not as good at problem-solving and that’s an area I want to get better at.’

“Being truthful with yourself about where your skills and abilities lie will help guide you into what your potential future looks like.”

Managers need to look beyond the soft skills

Shannon Neighbour worries that too many employers make quick, superficial judgements of job applicants during the interview process. She believes employers must get better at understanding what soft skills directly relate to the job, not what soft skills they’ve been trained to think are important.

“I also think that first impressions are not everything and the way you present one single time is not indicative of who you are, how you communicate and how you interact with others,” Neighbour says.

First impressions are not everything … “We like to use multiple data points to help validate a hiring decision.”

Not all positions require someone to be bubbly and outgoing and conversational, she says, which is why she urges clients to use additional analytical tools in their hiring process. For example, she uses different tools to evaluate communication skills versus something more specialized like sales techniques.

“We like to use multiple data points to help validate a hiring decision,” she says.

 


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