Book Review: Bridging the Soft Skills Gap

Bridging the Soft Skills Gap: How to Teach the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent, by Bruce Tulgan. 2015. NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

imagesWhenever I talk to colleagues about their work situations, most of those who are over 40 complain about young workers. In the past few weeks I’ve heard: “they often don’t show up for work and I have to work a double shift”, “they think they deserve a better work environment than people who’ve been here longer”, and “they don’t have any social skills.”

The complaints are so universal that Bruce Tulgan has written a book focusing on how to bring young workers up to speed with “soft skills”. Hard skills are the technical skills required to do the job, and he believes these are generally strong in young workers. But the soft skills are often sorely lacking. Tulgan describes soft skills as those involving professionalism, critical thinking, and followership. He asserts that people are hired because of their hard skills, but are fired due to their lack of soft skills.

Tulgan has been doing research on generational shifts in workplace skills since 1993. “Generation Z” (born between 1990 and 1999) are the newest employees to enter the workplace, and his data point to a major difference between these young people and older workers in terms of soft skills.

Trends such as globalization, technological advances, institutional insecurity, the information environment, and an increase in diversity have contributed to the soft skills gap. In addition, two other trends have significantly impacted on the decline in soft skills. The first Tulgan calls “helicopter parenting on steroids”. “Gen Zers have been insulated and scheduled and supervised and supported to a degree that no children or young adults have ever been before.” As a result, relationship boundaries with authority figures are rather blurry for Gen Zers. They expect authority figures to set them up for success, be of service to them, and treat them as customers. They are often startled when authority figures see it differently.

Second, Gen Zers have been told their entire lives that “all styles are equally valid,” so they are less inclined to try to fit in at work and more inclined to try to make the work environment fit in with them. Soft skills are mostly about fitting in, but Tulgan sees Gen Zers as the ultimate non-conformists. They struggle with the reality that there cannot be a functional workplace where everybody makes his or her own rules of conduct.

Of course, not every Gen Zer has poor soft skills. Many young people excel at professionalism, critical thinking, and followership. Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough of them to fill all the entry-level jobs.

Tulgan discusses how to hire for soft skills as well as how to train people in them. It is important to build soft skills into the basic job requirements. When hiring, look for red flags, such as a prospective hire who arrives late for the interview. Don’t hire this person, regardless of his hard skills. In addition, consider previewing the job for prospective employees, either through job shadowing or showing videos of workers doing the actual job. That way the new hire won’t be surprised at having to do the boring, difficult parts of the job in addition to the exciting and challenging parts.

Most of the book goes into great detail about exactly how to provide training to Gen Zers. This requires that managers become teachers and drill down into the missing basic skills. Tulgan gives readers explicit instructions about how to teach these missing skills. For example, he discusses five components of professionalism: self-evaluation, personal responsibility, positive attitude, good work habits, and people skills. For each component, he talks about the gap between the manager and the Gen Zer; the bridge, or what the manager needs to remember; a script for exactly what to say when presenting the skill; and finally, he includes specific lesson plans.

When teaching personal responsibility, for example, the manager might complain about the Gen Zer: “They are too quick to make excuses for themselves, blame others, and complain about external influences, obstacles, and constraints”. The Gen Zer might respond: “In my entry-level position, I often feel powerless in the face of so many factors outside my control”. The learning objective is to teach employees how to take greater personal responsibility by learning to stay focused on concrete actions within their control. Four detailed lesson plans include such objectives as defining “personal responsibility” and considering small things that are within the person’s control when facing a typical work problem.

After reading this book I understand the differing points of view more thoroughly than I did when just listening to complaints. This problem will not just go away, I fear, as young people mature. They need to be taught these skills, just as they are taught hard skills. I’m tempted to carry copies of this book around with me and hand them out to friends and colleagues who complain about the Gen Zers in their lives. Solving the soft skills gap can be done, but it requires time, energy, and thought. This book will help enormously.

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