Soft skills are vital in today's employment world

Consensus-builders are in demand, says Dave Willmer

Competition for IT jobs has intensified, so companies that are hiring expect to find candidates who can exceed the technical requirements of a position. While soft skills have long been touted by IT employers, today's harsh economic realities have made those abilities more valuable than ever. IT professionals who know which soft skills are currently the most important and why — and who are willing to work to improve those abilities — can find that they have a distinct advantage over similarly qualified peers.

Skills such as public speaking, negotiation and persuasion are among the most valuable in the current economic environment. What do these skills have in common? They're all based on the ability to communicate effectively. As budget restrictions create tension for managers and staffers alike, workplace relationships can easily become strained, leading to morale and productivity problems. Effective communication can help prevent or alleviate these situations.

Under such conditions, difficult projects are likely to fail without buy-in from all team members. That's why IT professionals who are skilled at building consensus have become especially valuable. Those who have both listening skills and the ability to help others see the big picture can help keep a department or project team focused on a common goal.

In addition, now that companies are more likely to scrutinise every expense, the ability to justify support for a project has also become more important. Professionals who can clearly communicate the value of a certain project to executives and other stakeholders are better positioned to thrive.

Don't overlook leadership as a key soft skill just because you aren't occupying or seeking a management-level position. Stepping up to assume extra responsibility — such as taking the lead on a challenging project — is another ability that current economic conditions have made valuable. Hiring managers no longer have the luxury of bringing on board employees who can't go above and beyond their usual duties as needed.

So, how do you go about improving your soft skills? One option is to look for classes that can help you develop these abilities. For example, if you hope to improve your public speaking skills, consider Toastmasters or a similar organisation designed to help people overcome discomfort in presenting their ideas to groups. A writing course from a local college or online university can improve your writing skills. Keeping in touch with members of your network and attending industry events can also keep your interpersonal skills sharp.

One of the most powerful ways to develop your soft skills is to teach. In almost any form, teaching puts your diplomacy, persuasion and communication skills to the test. Look to local continuing education programs, community colleges and mentor organisations for opportunities to share your knowledge of the IT profession -- and build your interpersonal abilities at the same time.

While your CV and cover letter should reflect your efforts to grow beyond your technical proficiency, keep in mind that an interviewer's first impressions of your soft skills might carry the most weight. Try practicing your interviewing skills with a friend or trusted colleague whose interpersonal skills you admire, asking for constructive criticism. He or she may point out mannerisms or habits (such as interrupting the speaker) that you might not be aware of.

If all these suggestions are outside your comfort zone, don't be discouraged. After all, if soft skills could be comfortably acquired by all IT professionals, they wouldn't be at such a premium. Ultimately, all soft skills are partly a matter of attitude. By demonstrating your willingness to improve in areas that aren't your greatest strengths, you take a step toward becoming the kind of well-rounded IT professional today's companies need.

Willmer is executive director of recruitment firm Robert Half Technology in the US

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