Finding Balance: Soft Skills and Technical Skills

Posted: November 15, 2017

Being prepared to talk about your strengths and to support them is a common interview tip. Many of us cite soft skills such as teamwork, adaptability, or communication as some of our answers, but may fall short when highlighting technical skills. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reported in 2017 that “a composite ‘ideal’ employee… [is] a hard-working individual with appropriate technical training…solid problem-solving skills, and the abilities to communicate well, work in teams, and to continually learn new things.” Finding an appropriate balance between soft and hard skills shows that you are a well-rounded candidate.

What are the main differences between hard (technical) skills and soft skills?

Hard skills can be learned or taught. Think of the skills you have developed thus far in your academic career. Have you learned how to program? Do you have a lot of experience using a certain software system? Do you have any certifications?  These are the types of technical/hard skills you would want to mention in an interview if the potential job would benefit from having a candidate with such strengths.

The procedures stay the same for hard skills regardless of your employer. Technical skills can be taught so the general process or procedure for using that skill will be similar. For example, if you have experience using MATLAB, your knowledge of the software stays the same even if you change companies. On the other hand, soft skills can be adapted based on the industry, the company, or the clients. You might communicate well with fellow engineers about a product, but are you able to explain the product to senior managers or potential clients?

What is the proper balance between hard skills and soft skills when discussing your strengths?

The job description is your best resource for determining what to discuss. If it states that experience using SOLIDWORKS is a desired qualification, then highlighting SOLIDWORKS as a technical strength would benefit you in the interview. If the job includes collaborative projects, then you would also want to share a soft skill such as your ability to work in teams.

Some positions and industries require a stronger emphasis on technical skills than others—and vice versa. Since engineering is an inherently technical field you will want to point out your hands-on, technical experience. However, if you are pursuing consulting, technical sales, or other client-facing positions, it is imperative to effectively communicate and demonstrate your likelihood of being successful when relaying technical information to clients without a strong, technical background.

What about my resume—which skills should I highlight there?

Like most career advice, this will depend on what your experiences have been thus far. Do you only have part-time summer employment and student leadership experience? If so, demonstrating the transferable soft skills you’ve gained  will be valuable. Strength in problem solving, critical thinking, and interpersonal skills are useful in any work environment. However, if you have projects, internship, or co-op experience you want to draw more focus to the technical aspects since those are directly related to your field.

“Soft skills get little respect, but will make or break your career.” – Peggy Klaus