Donat has a dream of joining a top intelligence agency but he is just an academic researcher. He must face a competitor with much more experience.
This is a 3-page story inspired by the choice of soft skills vs hard skills, when applying for jobs. This fictional story is set in the world of secret intelligence, but it could have been almost any professional discipline.
The story is followed by a commentary on soft skills vs hard skills. (Jump to commentary.)
Donat stood. His hearing faded and his vision blurred like in the deepest fog. Instinctively he put a hand on the desk to steady himself. He waited for the sensation to pass. These moments had come before. It was when he concentrated hard then started to move. But this was the worst yet.
The intelligence people had chosen a wedding reception room for the testing. The wire frames and boards from yesterday’s wedding were lined along one side. Donat and the other seven candidates sat at the round tables that had been used by the wedding guests.
The day had started with a security briefing. He listened intently, keen to show his enthusiasm. But looking at the confidence of the other candidates, and their neat interview suits, he feared that enthusiasm was all he had to offer.
Then there had been written tests. At first Donat thought they were IQ tests, but they spread into areas like creativity, problem solving and communications. “It was unfair to ask so much,” he heard one of the other candidates saying, “I gave great answers, but I could only get through half the questions.” Donat said nothing. He had split his time between the questions, doing as much as possible and then merely noting the next steps that he could not complete. He feared he had made a mistake.
There was a long lunch break with enough time to get outside. Donat went with the others to a small section of the gardens. It was picture perfect. They sat on the grass by the sundial. “Hey, Donut,” a voice called from behind him, “do you actually think soft skills like creativity are important for an intelligence researcher?” He recognised the voice as Jackie’s. Jackie had a beaming smile that reminded Donat of a holiday in Kenya, but she also seemed to have a confrontational attitude to men.
“It’s Donat, not Donut,” he commented. The security briefing came back to him. “International research, you said?” He was pretending Jackie had not used the word “intelligence”. There could be people listening from the bushes.
Jackie continued: “I’ve worked in research in two geopolitical thinktanks, I’ve talked to top experts in the world, and I’ve done a spell in a private security agency as a researcher. What’s your background?”
Donat’s shoulders slumped at her achievements. “I’ve only worked in universities,” he admitted. There was no point in saying more. He wondered why he had been invited to the tests if there were people like her. And Jackie ticked all the diversity statistics. He was just another white male.
The afternoon involved team exercises. They were split into three groups of four and given team exercises. Donat found himself with Jackie again. Jackie glanced at the instructions. “I know how to do this. All the rest of you need to do is support me, and we’ll win.”
Donat stared at the rules. “Look at that sentence in the middle. This is a trick question, not like normal. We’ll only get this if we pool our ideas. Look here,” he gestured to the instructions. “If we match this and this, could we get that,” he gestured. He noticed Jackie frowning.
And Jackie frowned again every time he encouraged the others. At one point she turned on the quiet person in their group: “Richard, you’re saying nothing. You’ll be useless as a researcher.”
Donat winced. “Richard is contributing in his own way,” he said. And in himself, he smiled. He was convinced Richard was a plant – an existing intelligence researcher, who would report back to the judges.
Donat watched Jackie. If this was the kind of person who worked in an intelligence agency, he wanted no part of it. He had seen today as a test of whether he could win his dream job. It was wrong. It was of whether his dream was real.
All that was left now, was hope.
Commentary on soft skills vs hard skills
Soft skills apply across disciplines – whether academia or intelligence, or industry, public service, or the military. Soft skills also apply at all levels of organisations, in different ways.
Hard skills belong to a specific job role. It’s the kind of skill that appears on people’s CV’s along with their qualifications. We watch for their years of experience and the different ways they have used the skill.
Soft skills vs hard skills – which is harder?
Both soft and hard skills can be taught in classrooms, in online courses and with self-study. However they need to be practiced, in different contexts. That requires the opportunity to use them – and it’s not always possible.
Some people spend their careers improving their soft skills. They keep refining their best skills, and consciously build new ones. (That’s me – I’ve 40 years of professional experience, and I’m stronger now than I’ve ever been.)
Soft skills are difficult to prove. However hard skills can be examined and you can win qualifications. It biases the recruitment process, unless there are objective tests and trials like in the story above.
Soft skills vs hard skills – which is more important for a new job?
That depends on your career. Disciplines like caring and management rely heavily on soft skills. However technical roles rely heavily on hard skills and need limited soft skills (like team work and communication).
Recruitment processes should include checks on both hard and soft skills. If there are no checks on soft skills, ask yourself:
- Is this a purely mechanical job that requires no soft skills? (That implies an impersonal workplace. Is that what you want?)
- Are your potential employers so incompetent that they think soft skills don’t matter? (And does that mean you’ll have problems with colleagues and superiors?)
- Are their politics so “correct” they dare not mention soft skills? (And if so, can you work with that level of compliance?)
Soft skills vs hard skills – which helps most in a professional career?
You need to keep adding to your hard skills, to have the skills needed in a rapidly changing world. Many hard skills also need refreshers to keep them up-to-date.
You also need soft skills if you want your career to go beyond focussed technical roles. Soft skills and proven achievements help you progress.
These days, your career security is not based on your employer’s loyalty to you, and it’s not based on a set of skills you collected years ago. Your security comes from up-to-date skills that are relevant. If you want a good salary: focus on hard skills that are in short supply, and urgently needed. If you want to progress to more responsibility: focus on soft skills.
Related pages in this website
“The 4 Seasons”
A 3-page story, following a young woman who is in the wrong career, and is struggling to make the big change. The key is how she presents herself and how she sees herself – that is a soft skill.
“The Three Newbie’s”
Another 2-page story of three recent graduates who start their careers together. They choose different strategies for progressing. Five years on, they have diverged. As an exercise for you, think of the different soft skills they picked up, and how it helped each them.
Intelligence research specialist jobs – 14 tips for survival
This article looks at people entering the intelligence discipline – that includes secret, public, police and commercial intelligence. The tips also apply to very different disciplines. It illustrates some crises people face, and then looks at 7 tips for protecting your mental health. It also looks at 7 ways to survive extreme work pressure.
CITP (Chartered IT Professional), salaries – get better benefits
This is a personal account about my experiences after becoming a BCS Chartered IT Professional. My biggest benefits were in having a professional code, a commitment to lifelong learning, and I found a joy of mentoring. Those are soft skills.
More about soft skills
This story and the commentary came after I worked with Chipkoo Labs, looking at skills that interns could develop to improve their careers. Skills are key, as Manisha Bhaamra explained in her article Reskilling and Upskilling: How to prepare ourselves for the jobs of tomorrow.
Also related, Essential Skills in an Age of Digital Disruption – a short report from TEK systems.
Or search on “soft skills training”
and “soft skills vs hard skills”.