AI is Not Just for Recruitment Anymore. It Accelerates Soft Skills Development.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is helping businesses of all sizes accelerate their employee recruitment by identifying and wooing candidates.

With the experience of these benefits top of mind, HR teams are embracing this modern technology in new and exciting ways.  For example, they are tapping AI-powered chatbots to eliminate the time-consuming and disruptive, albeit vital, need to answer individual employee payroll, benefit, or other policy questions.  By offloading these tasks, AI is enabling HR teams to function more efficiently.

So, it is only logical that innovative human resource professionals are now turning to AI to address their more significant strategic challenges, such as closing today’s workplace soft skills gap within their organization.

Most articles you read about employee training raises the concern about how to ensure employees have the right technical skills and defining upskilling strategies.  But there is a more pressing skill development need.  To drive innovation and creativity throughout an organization, the discussion is shifting to focus on how to ensure employees have the essential soft skills employers desire today, which can have a more significant impact on an organization’s success.

A 2016 Wall Street Journal survey revealed that C-Suite executives rank soft skills as equally or more important than technical skills.  But respondents also admitted they have a difficult time finding candidates who possess these critical skills, including empathy, critical thinking, problem-solving, effective communication, getting along with co-workers, and more.

The Soft Skills Gap

Both employers and employees are feeling the effects of the current demand over available supply of soft skills.  Employers want their employees to have them, but they are decreasing in availability and competency levels.  Starting in 2017, PWC’s global CEO survey has stressed the negative impact of the increasing lack of soft skills.  The concern is so great that 77% of respondents the first year highlighted the lack of soft skills as the biggest threat to their business.

2017 PWC Global CEO Survey – Biggest Business Threat

Underdeveloped Soft Skills

Employees share this view, especially millennials who recognize their lacking ability of these critical skills.  Many have indicated they feel vulnerable about their level of confidence, ability to lead (manage conflict, demonstrate empathy), their social interactions with co-workers, and the ability to communicate effectively.

If you were to plot the year-over-year demand versus supply gap on a graph, it would look something like this.

soft skill importance and availability

This graph is for illustrative, relatability purposes only.  We designed it based on aggregated sentiment from articles, industry discussions, and human resource professionals’ comments, and we believe it will get some heads nodding in agreement.

Enter AI

AI is emerging as a formidable solution to this challenge.  Traditional (read outdated, historical) learning and development processes are not effective with today’s younger workers.  Millennials and Gen Zers want an interactive, digital experience.

Today’s techno-savvy younger professionals quickly embrace and leverage any new digital experience.  This behavior is to be expected.  They were practically born with a mobile computer in their hands.  Millennials and Gen Z’ers leap at the opportunity to experience new technology-enabled services, tapping and swiping hurriedly to self-discover all that might be available at their fingertips.  L&D efforts need to capitalize on this digital curiosity to be effective.

Strategies to ensure younger employees engage with educational content include:

  1. Micro-burst content. Content should be consumable in 2 – 15 minutes.  And navigating to and through it should be simple, intuitive, and well designed.
  2. Easily accessible. Content needs to be digitally native and available on mobile devices.
  3. Collaborative. Younger generations are discovering the value of long-term interpersonal relationships in a way they’ve not experienced before.  Solutions that promote collaboration and community building will promote success.
  4. Relevance. This happens to be a “traditional” (obvious) strategy that has stood the test of time.  Content needs to address their specific needs.
  5. Integrated learning experiences. Development strategies need to incorporate educational content with real-world experiences.  This learn and apply approach helps to speed growth and development.

AI supports these strategies in several ways.  Chatbots can guide employees to the best micro-burst content for their current skill development.  AI-powered “smart” development plans can keep track of progress and push exercises or activities to the learner to ensure they continue to grow and develop.  With its predictive ability, AI can foresee potential pitfalls and offer help to employees before a problem happens.  And of course, AI offers a digital approach to how today’s workers want to learn.

Like the rapid pace of technology development, the HR digital transformation is moving to a new phase.  It is not only about automating processes; it is about fostering and delivering support for curiosity and continuous learning.  AI is powering this modern-day approach.

Skills Supply & Demand Gap

When you hear the words “skills gap” what immediately comes to mind? Most of us instinctively think technical skills. Whether a mechanic, accountant, or doctor, employees in specific fields have invested time, effort and in some cases, (significant) financial resources to acquire expert technical knowledge for their job. 

And when an employer has a position to fill, the first line of thinking is naturally around the subject matter expertise required to get the job done. 

But once employees are onboard and working hard to meet the demands of their new position, the requirements for success shift.

Throughout physical conference rooms, video conferences and shared workspaces globally, leaders, hiring managers and HR professionals turn the conversation to “how” their employees work. 

Daily observations focus on if they are effectively communicating, how do they problem solve, are they critical thinkers, how do they approach negotiations, are they empathetic, humble? 

The language bandied about to best describe these capabilities has landed on “soft skills.”  Although, they are anything but “soft.”  They often demand deep, honest self-reflection, and require time to develop. 

The demand for soft skills is at an all-time high. 

The Wall Street Journal found:

92% of surveyed executives said soft skills were equally important or more important than technical skills.

The underpinning of most of these skills is emotional intelligence.  Daniel Goleman concluded while conducting research for his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence that:

67% of all abilities associated with strong job performance were related to emotional intelligence.

Even though it has been almost 25-years since this break-through research, today’s business leaders are still disappointed by the significant gap between their demand for soft skills and the mastery of them by today’s workforce.

And this gap is only set to widen now that Generation Z (Gen Z) is entering the workforce.  Gen Zers believe technical skills are more important than soft skills, which is in stark contrast to the skills employers’ desire most and those that favorably contribute to career success.

Given this contrasting opinion, the need for additional employee training continues to grow for both skills types.  In a 2019 survey, LinkedIn discovered Learning & Development professionals believe 61% of Gen Z will require soft skills development and 41% will require additional technical skills development.

Career development is just one of the confluence of topics that contribute to today’s employee experience. In order to be successful, employers need to recognize that defined employee engagement strategies are as critical, if not more important, than their strategic customer development efforts.  The catalyst for this stronger internal focus is the shifting workforce demographics to a larger percentage of Millennial and Gen Z workers, who have different views of what work is and how it should be accomplished.

As executives weigh the varied investment considerations to ensure employee engagement and loyalty, the discussion naturally turns to return-on-investment.  Similar to decisions about the customer experience, the question that needs to be answered is “What will provide the greatest return for our employee experience investment?” 

There is a growing body of empirical research that demonstrates the favorable impact of the investment in career development, especially when coaching is integrated.  (235%1, 529%2, 788%3)

Coaches help individuals identify improvement opportunities and provide guidance for growth.  They provide real-life work experiences to help put in to context the “how” of a job and career for today’s less experienced employees.

But just as today’s workforce youth have differing opinions of skills importance, their learning approaches differ from that of more tenured employees.  They want self-paced, on-demand access to content and feedback on progress, integrated with human interactions.  They not only appreciate the guidance of career coaches, but they want access to their cohorts across industries in order to learn from their experiences as well.

Organizations not only need to invest in career development as part of their employee experience, they need access to innovative, modern approaches to help grow and develop these new generations of workers.

And with this investment, they will build a greater sense of trust with their employees, which leads to stronger employee engagement, productivity and loyalty.  And hopefully closing the skills supply and demand gap.




1Evaluation Works, 2008
2Manchester, Inc, 2001, without retention benefits factors
3Manchester, Inc, 2001, without retention benefits factors