Are “Soft Skills” Critical to the Future of Work?

This article is part of an NLC series on the future of work in America’s cities.

Among other technological advances and societal shifts, automation and artificial intelligence are impacting the workforce — vastly improving productivity and raising wages in some jobs while erasing or transforming others entirely. These new forces are also impacting the skillsets that are sought after in the new economy. As jobs change, so do the skillsets required to do them.

NLC’s Center for City Solutions recently released a new report, Assessing the Future of Our Work: Automation and the Role of Cities that analyzes occupations at three levels of automatability as well as the highest-ranking skills associated with those occupations. Interestingly, this analysis suggests that, counter to some narratives that emphasize technical skills, soft and logical skills are actually the most desirable for the future.

The occupations were identified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and utilize the Occupational Information Network ‘s (O*NET) distinctions of ‘level’ and ‘importance’ to rank the significance of 35 skills across six elements: basic skills, complex problem-solving skills, technical skills, systems skills, resource management skills and social skills. The most important skills for the occupations that will produce the most new jobs include time management, judgement and decision making, operation monitoring, coordination, speaking, critical thinking, active listening and material resource management.

Table 4
SOURCE: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupation Data, Table 1.7

These “soft skill” competencies are highly adaptable, and many workforce professionals agree on the importance of more soft skills training. Training people in soft skills often results in greater emotional intelligence, the ability to better deal with people and a positive and flexible attitude — traits that are highly valued across all sectors of the workforce. Ideally, initiatives and programs that further develop these kinds of interpersonal skills will be required to maximize outcomes in the economy of the future.

Every city can begin to prepare for workforce changes by tracking trends and understanding how to best align its skilled workforce with new, in-demand jobs. The report recommends that cities take several steps to prepare for the workforce and skill demands of the future:

  1. To avoid becoming ‘at-risk’ to automation, cities should consider ways to match the demands of their local industries and the skill sets of their populations. Skills can bridge the gap between workers in need of opportunity and industries in need of capable workers.
  2. Cities will need to rethink education and workforce training programs to meet constantly changing employer needs. Municipal leaders recognize that the strength of their cities is in the people that live there. As cities prepare for the future of work, they must work with business leaders, educational institutions and community-based organizations to ensure that workforce needs are fulfilled by regional training and educational programs.
  3. Cities should work to create policies that build pathways between post-secondary education institutions and their business communities. Investment in improving and increasing access to early childhood, K-12, and postsecondary educational opportunities will position cities to not only benefit from automation and other technological changes, but also ensure that the local workforce has the skills to contribute to and share in the gains.
  4. As city officials and senior city leaders strategically develop the workforce of the future, it is critical for trainings to emphasize skills that promote highly transferrable and soft skills.

Luckily, there are logical career crosswalks that can help people move toward better opportunities, and cities move toward sustainable local economies.

Paying attention to market trends, understanding the talents and needs of the local workforce, and continuing to provide workers with new opportunities are the best ways to achieve real results. Americans want to work, and businesses want to create profits. We all have the tools to make a valuable impact in the economy of the future.

To read the full report, click here.

nicole_depuis_ready.jpgAbout the Author: Nicole DuPuis is the Principal Associate for Urban Innovation in NLC’s Center for City Solutions. Her areas of expertise include infrastructure, transportation, technology, telecommunications and urban innovation. Throughout her career she has published several articles and contributed to numerous research reports on these topics.