Don’t underestimate ‘soft skills’ in your career

Nov 11, 2016 07.00PM |

by Wesley Gunter and Marc Bakker

IT’S no surprise that Singapore’s workforce has come under scrutiny lately with a study by Singapore Management University (SMU) and financial services group J P Morgan stating that there is an insufficient focus on soft skills.

This largely reflects Singapore’s education system (now going through a major overhaul) which used to focus primarily on academic performance rather than taking into consideration other aspects such as teamwork, creativity, communication, networking and debating skills, among others.

And it’s not just schools that are to be blamed for this “paper-chase”. With parental expectations largely focusing on grades and numbers instead of a holistic education consisting of sports, music, and so on, it’s no wonder many of us have grown up to identify ourselves solely by our qualifications.

So why are soft skills so important? They, more than theoretical knowledge, qualifications or even practical experience, will determine how effective employees will be when working with others. Basically, employers such as ourselves value staff who are effective in influencing decisions and getting things done.

These attributes can turn a mediocre employee (on paper) into a great asset to a company. 

It’s exactly these skills that employers are looking to assess during the interview process. When it comes to yearly employee evaluation, it’s these same skills – paired with performance – that have a considerable bearing on the appraisal and promotion prospects within a company structure.


Use paper qualifications wisely

While racking up more certificates or degrees in your profession may look impressive on your portfolio, the biggest challenge is how you’re going to use this to your advantage. In order to do this, communication skills are vital to put across to your employer how these skills you have studied so hard to acquire can be applied effectively towards the job you’re applying for.

While I do agree that qualifications play a large part in getting your foot in the door, experience trumps qualifications any day. We would hire a diploma graduate with three years of relevant work experience over a fresh Harvard graduate at the drop of a hat. The reason is simple – no time is wasted in training someone to get the job done. We can also be fairly comfortable that they know how to behave appropriately in a professional setting.

Now if we had to choose between two fresh graduates for the same job position, it always boils down to the interview and never the qualifications. Why? It would be useless for us to hire someone who thinks he/she knows everything based on their degree, compared to someone who is less qualified yet willing to learn. Someone who is less qualified but possesses a set of “soft skills”, or “street smarts” to get them ahead, is a bigger asset. It’s the hunger to prove one’s worth and humility to accept guidance that sets them apart and allows them to grow into, and eventually beyond, their role.

If you look at the Steve Jobs and Richard Branson of the world, you’ll realise that neither of these guys were more educated or knew more about their job than the next guy. What set them apart, among other aspects, were their communication skills in effectively convincing others that they were better than the rest and to follow their vision and come onboard as staff, investors or clients.

Potential employees, especially fresh graduates with a stack of paper qualifications and certificates, need to realise this – no one owes you a job because of what you know, but because of what you bring to the table. 

It’s tempting to focus on paper qualifications over soft skills. For one it’s difficult to assess soft skills as they can be highly subjective and a product of personal preference, style, and attitude.

Then there’s the question of what exactly soft skills are. They can be hard to define entirely. One thing is for certain: although it’s an encouraging sign that the G is reassessing its stance on education and is open to broadening the scope of what a good education entails, we are still afraid that the focus might end up to be too narrow.

As employers, we would encourage the G to cast the net wider and consider a broad range of attributes under this label. Soft skills will always be required to climb the corporate ladder when you close major deals, address your employees, and even when you present your multi-million dollar start-up ideas to your investors.


Wesley and Marc head up Right Hook Communications, a PR and marketing SME.

This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

1. Poly vs Private degrees: It’s not the money that matters

2. Private degrees: data needs to tell a fuller skills story 

3. 5 new jobs that didn’t exist a decade ago

4. SMACK IN THE MIDDLE: Keys to success

5. 5 skills employers want you to have in tomorrow’s job market

7. 50 Faces: What is success to you?


Featured image by Natassya Siregar.

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