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Story Student Success

8 ‘Soft’ Skills You Really Need to Land Your Dream Job

Michelle Baik

San Francisco State’s Orlando H. Harris explains why being a good communicator, problem-solver and leader are crucial to succeeding at work.

Student in a suit smiling

​​Hiring managers often look for "soft skills" such as critical thinking, attention to detail, ownership and more in recent college graduates. Photo courtesy of CSU Fullerton

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You've aced your public speaking class. You're a solid writer. Or maybe your forte is in analyzing the numbers on any spreadsheet, writing formulas, or programming code. Those and other so-called "hard skills" are crucial to preparing for a career and earning your degree, of course, but there are other talents you'll definitely need to succeed on the job.

​According to PayScale's 2016 Workforce-Skills Preparedness Report, which surveyed nearly 64,000 hiring managers, recent college graduates are still lacking some specific "soft skills" that are essential to doing well at work.

In particular, these missing skills include critical thinking/problem solving, attention to detail, communication, ownership, leadership, interpersonal skills/teamwork, grit, and curiosity. (See the infographic below for the eight soft skills managers said are most often missing among recent college graduates in the PayScale report.)

Orlando H. Harris, director of Career Services and Leadership Development at San Francisco State, offers tips on how students can build up important soft skills as they prepare to enter the job market:

1. Critical Thinking/Problem Solving

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) defines critical thinking/problem solving as being able to "exercise sound reasoning to analyze issues, make decisions, and overcome problems." If you've got this skill you should be able to interpret information and data to come up with original solutions.

If you want to work on your critical thinking, Harris advises finding opportunities to volunteer for projects, both on- and off-campus. Give your time, or intern, with a non-profit organization or a company where you'll be handling a variety of duties, such as collecting data to making decisions as part of a team or committee.

Additionally, be intentional when choosing your General Education (GE) courses. Harris highly recommends researching and choosing specific GE courses that will challenge you to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills.

2. Attention to Detail

Similarly, simply taking GE courses and courses in your major will help you to become more meticulous in your work.

The workplace requires juggling multiple projects at the same time, so building up your organizational and strategic planning skills now is essential. Managing multiple courses well can make it easier to handle a lot while still keeping the quality of your work high.

3. Communication

According to NACE, students who are getting ready to enter the professional world should work on articulating their thoughts and ideas clearly and effectively, both in writing and when speaking.

"Companies consistently say that students, overall, struggle with effective communication," says Harris.

Ask yourself if you're able to process new or complex information and articulate it in a way that's applicable to the organization you're interviewing at or working for. "Can you effectively communicate information to a colleague or a department within the organization in a way that's relevant to them?" Harris asks.

Communicating succinctly, clearly and effectively is necessary no matter what industry you work in, which is why taking specific GE courses to help you build written and oral communication skills is crucial, notes Harris.

You can also reach out to the career center on your campus to see if there are workshops or other resources to help you learn and practice these skills. 

4. Ownership

When working with others, problems can arise that may not always be attributed to your own work or performance. 

But Harris tells his students to be ready to be leaders by thinking, "It's not my fault, but it's my responsibility."

Ownership is a trait all leaders should possess, Harris adds. "It comes with having a sense of pride, belonging and the desire to achieve."

5. Leadership

"Leaders are born and made," Harris believes. "Everyone can be a leader if they choose to. You may not be the one who leads up front, but you can still lead behind the scenes."

Like ownership, leadership is part of your attitude on the job; but this skill can be practiced and honed.

There are many GE courses and workshops at campuses that focus on building leadership skills. Harris recommends asking faculty for opportunities that enable you to take a leadership role as part of the work. You can also join student organizations and volunteer in the community to practice working with and leading different groups.

6. Interpersonal Skills

These skills span a wide variety of abilities that relate to working with other people, including teamwork and "intercultural fluency," or the ability to understand, appreciate and communicate with people from different backgrounds and points of view.

According to NACE, employees—including entry-level workers—should be able to "build collaborative relationships with colleagues and customers representing diverse cultures, races, ages, genders, religions, lifestyles, and viewpoints."

The most difficult part of building this skill set is usually knowing how to manage and resolve conflict.

7. Grit

Harris says that in spite of the premium placed on working at Google, no correlation has been noted between a Google employee's success in terms of performance, growth and leadership and the university the employee attended. In other words, an Ivy League education doesn't automatically predict success on the job, even at one of the biggest, most successful companies in the world.

"It's all about internal fortitude," stresses Harris.

Many CSU many students have unique, non-traditional backgrounds, but many don't see the grit they've built up as a result as an asset, Harris says.

"Students have to have the mentality, My background wasn't the best, but now I know I need to work hard for what I want."

8. Curiosity

"The best students are the ones who will be proactive," says Harris simply.

Constantly be on the look-out for opportunities to learn and to improve, both for yourself and your organization.

Find people to mentor and challenge you, and take advantage of resources that are available to you, such as workshops and trainings.

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