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Durable and Perishable Skills Better Reflect What Employers Need Than Soft and Hard Skills

Dave Saben, CXO and Executive Vice President at New Horizons Computer Learning Centers
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It’s becoming increasingly important to change how we talk about and categorize skill sets we want our employees to master. Important because the categories hard-wired into our management lexicon are no longer relevant.

In management, we’ve lumped skills and competencies into either a “hard” or “soft” category that roughly aligned with the tasks a person was asked to do.

Ironically, it’s never been a very rigid list or an accurate one.

There’s no SIC code kind of system or global definition for what it meant to be better qualified for either one.

But we generally viewed the hard skills as being from STEM fields, areas that had clearly defined competencies like chemistry, computational skills, programming, engineering, and analysis.

The soft skills were writing, interpersonal communications, collaboration, critical thinking, organization, creativity, and leadership, which were harder to quantify and measure objectively.

Most people agree that competency with skills on both lists is needed in any career, STEM or otherwise.

The more skills on each side of the soft/hard ledger you can use, the better off you’ll be.

The thinking in the HR department has been – you know what’s better than a top-notch coder? A top-notch coder who can think creatively and work well with a diverse team. 

And while that “hard/soft” list was sufficient enough to organize our thinking about education and career choices and outcomes, it’s proven to be outdated and skates on the edge of being exclusionary.

First off, the words themselves are misleading. What’s “soft” about presenting a new product idea or “hard” about setting up a remote network? Given the day, I could argue that it is much easier to set up a network than convince a bunch of skeptics that my newest product will improve output in their factory.

We find that leading thinkers at the forefront of skills training and education are using the terms “durable” and “perishable.” This is true because these terms better reflect the foundational skills for employees that support the long-term growth, stability, and goodwill within a company. That’s an insightful change. 

It’s ironic that most of the skills we used to call soft are actually the durable ones. And the hard skills are rather perishable because of the rapid change in technology and the need to constantly ladder-up an individual’s competencies.  

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The argument for changing the HR management lexicon makes sense when you think of it in terms of permanence. The thinking and operation skills in the “durable” group – skills like opportunity recognition, language and writing, creativity, and critical thinking – tend to last a long time. If you use them regularly, they don’t expire and apply to nearly any kind of work.

Conversely, the skills we used to think of as hard tend to require regular refreshing and, often, complete retraining. In other words, some skills are more long-lasting than others and tend to need less formalized training and certainly less frequent updating.

Think of someone who earned a degree in computer science — traditionally called a hard skill — in 2001. Computer technology today looks very little like it did 20 years ago. Naming it a hard skill implies permanence, but 2001’s computer science skills are anything but permanent. Without constant training, those skills and knowledge would be dramatically outdated today. The same is true for engineering and medicine and most other STEM-style skills. As the fields advance and the tools and technologies evolve, so does the need to expand and evolve in competency.

The same issue applies to basic technology competencies. Word processing, working with spreadsheets and graphics programs requires constant retraining. We used to call these skills hard because they reflected the additive nature of the skills, but really, they are perishable. In fact, they are very perishable.

Perishable, however, does not imply less valuable. There’s considerable evidence that competency in these skills yields fast and sizable returns to those who learn them. And yet, there was an implied bias that went along with the soft versus hard skill terminology.

It did no good to name them this way because of the tendency to group people based on demographic categories that we are trying so desperately to do away with. In our quest to bring equal access to opportunity and earning power, we need to be doubly alert to the categories and buckets we create. 

Every skill related to technology or workplace performance, even skills such as software proficiency, requires constant updating. Updating these skills in a classroom with a certified trainer can be the fastest and most effective way to keep pace with company-wide change or, for the individual, to learn entirely new skills. We don’t, for example, find doctors or architects teaching themselves at their own pace. Instead, they need professional training and new certifications to confirm the new skills they’ve acquired.

The point is that it’s true that many workplace and career skills will need constant refreshing, that what you learned a few years ago won’t be useful tomorrow. And that’s not a bad thing. It does mean that describing those skills – whether advanced aerospace engineering or office accounting software – as perishable skills feels more accurate than calling them hard skills. It may also remove perceptual barriers and expand access to people who shied away from words that implied difficulty.

And by extension, it also means that those whose jobs rely heavily on perishable skills will have a life of learning ahead of them. Ongoing learning is a great thing – for us as well as for those who rely on us to know what we’re doing and perform at a high level. 

In that sense, the new discussion about what we call these skills, how we categorize the things we learn to do, is more than semantics. The new terms are anticipatory and descriptive and have the potential to change the trajectory for many young lives. They tell educators and learners alike what skills are durable and likely to persist and what skills are perishable and will require constant retraining.

As a leader at a company that’s literally in the business of delivering ongoing, career-focused skills training, we see this new terminology as the starting point for improved hiring practices and a better way to manage and grow staff capabilities. And, it just might open doors to people who had been scared off by the perception that hard skills were the toughest ones to acquire.

Dave Saben, CXO and Executive Vice President at New Horizons Computer Learning Centers

Dave has been an advisor, senior executive or CEO at education, private equity, venture capital, ed-tech, assessment, and training organizations. 

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