soft vs. hard skills: what’s the difference?

  • upskill
  • July 30, 2020

Not all skills are created equal. There are soft skills, and there are hard skills — and you'll need both to be successful in your career. But what's the essential difference between them?

Here, we'll dive into the two major skill categories to help you gain a better understanding of each, then break down the soft and hard skills that are the most in demand right now.

what are soft skills?

Soft skills are fundamentally human skills, the fabric of all social interactions — and as such, it makes sense to think of soft skills as skills that are passively learned, rather than actively taught. They're also the key ingredient in much of the mission-critical work that goes on at businesses today.

Another thing about soft skills: They generally aren't specific to any one job per se, but are value-adding abilities that can be applied in virtually any role or capacity. The following soft skills are all industry agnostic.

soft skill examples

  • adaptability
  • discipline
  • teamwork
  • time management
  • communication
  • empathy and understanding
  • leadership
  • resilience

While, yes, you can learn or improve these skills at any point in life, much of them are formed in childhood and shaped by your upbringing. That's what makes them so valuable for the people who already have them. Look at it this way: You can learn to code in Java in a few months, but you can't learn to be a leader in that same amount of time.

Finally, it's also worth noting that the scope and scale of disruption brought on by COVID-19 has caused many companies to put renewed focus on soft skills. In the context of so much uncertainty, they're looking for candidates who are adaptable and resilient, and who have the time management skills to work effectively — and with little direct oversight — from home. In the eyes of employers, those candidates are going to be the best bet to add value.

Now that we've covered soft skills, what, by contrast, are hard ones? We’ll take a look in the following section. Plus, if you want some additional guidance, here’s everything you need to know about improving your soft skills.

what are hard skills?

Hard skills are skills that are teachable, measurable and demonstrable. These are typically skills acquired through specific training programs, on-the-job experience or some mixture of the two. Think of these as the core technical competencies — boxes that must be checked — in order for you to be a qualified candidate for a given role. In other words, while complementary soft skills will certainly make you a more desirable candidate, they'll need to rest on the right bedrock of hard skills in order for you to be considered for the position.

To make all of this more concrete, take a look at the following examples of hard skills, which we’ve bucketed by industry to help you out.

hard skill examples

  • accounting and finance: accounts payable (AP), accounts receivable (AR), year-end close processes, GAAP
  • healthcare: wound-care procedures, inserting catheters, phlebotomy/venipuncture, mass spectrometry (MS)
  • retail: point of sale (POS) technology, restocking, inventory management, customer support processes
  • technologies: network configuration, UX design, programming languages (JavaScript, Python)

By now, the essential difference between these two types of skills — soft and hard — should be pretty clear, so let's move on to look at which among them are most in demand today.

the most in-demand soft and hard skills today

Given what we've covered so far, you might think that hard skills hold far more weight in the eyes of employers than soft skills. Interestingly, however, a lot of research suggests that's not necessarily the case. One study, for example, found that finding employees with the right soft skills remains a challenge for 91 percent of companies.

Having the right soft skills can make all of the difference. But which are the most in demand? One large-scale analysis — based on the profiles of more than 660 million professionals, as well as more than 20 million job postings — provides a lot of insight into the most in-demand soft skills on the job market today.

highly in-demand soft skills

  • creativity: the ability to come up with novel ideas and develop solutions
  • persuasion: the ability to effectively sway the opinions of others, secure buy-in from stakeholders and drive action
  • collaboration: the ability to work harmoniously with a team in pursuit of common goals
  • adaptability: the ability to persevere, demonstrate flexibility and succeed in the face of sudden change or uncertainty
  • emotional intelligence: the ability to perceive and be responsive to your own emotions as well as the emotions of others

What about hard skills? Given all of the ways that tech is transforming the economy, perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of these are IT competencies.

highly in-demand hard skills

  • blockchain: expertise developing blockchain applications
  • cloud computing: experience designing and maintaining cloud applications and architecture
  • analytical reasoning: the ability to interpret and derive insights from complex information and data
  • artificial intelligence (AI): expertise building and developing AI applications for business use
  • UX design: experience conducting research and designing digital applications that are easy and intuitive to use

key takeaways

We've broken down all of the major differences between soft and hard skills, including which of each are most likely to increase your viability on the job market. And that means, no matter your specific industry or area of expertise, you should be sure to include a strategic mix of soft and hard skills on your resume, too.

Want to make the most of COVID-19 downtime to acquire new hard skills? We've put together some resources to help you out with that as well.