Four ways to narrow the 'soft skills' gap in the US: Opinion

Our nation is facing a shift in its workforce.

Melissa Kersey is the Chief People Officer for McDonald’s USA. Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of ABC News.

Our nation is facing a shift in its workforce due to an aging population, automation, and an ongoing soft skills gap. Employers today are re-examining which skills matter most to them. Core soft skills -- customer service, teamwork, and responsibility -- matter, especially for individuals just starting out, as they establish a strong foundation from which they can build over the course of their career.

Did you know the difference between career success and career stagnation can come down to just a few job skills? In fact, research conducted by Harvard University, the Carnegie Foundation and Stanford Research Center have all concluded that 85 percent of job success comes from having well-developed soft and people skills and only 15 percent of job success comes from technical skills and knowledge.

But the soft skills gap isn’t new and the need for development increasingly matters. For years and as recently as April, a LinkedIn study concluded that the number one skills gap in the U.S. is basic communication skills -- a gap that was three times higher than that of software engineering.

So, why is this still a growing problem for employers and employees alike?

Gen Z, our youngest workforce generation, the largest generation ever and the firstborn as digital natives, recognize they lack the soft skills that are most critical to helping them grow early in their careers. And 37 percent of Gen Zs have gone as far as admitting that technology has weakened their ability to maintain strong interpersonal relationships and develop people skills, according to insights in the new book, “Gen Z @ Work: How the Next Generation Is Transforming the Workplace.”

But, most importantly, Gen Zs acknowledge they need help getting these skills as they find themselves struggling to enter the workforce. For employers, this is our chance to help these young people develop the skills they need in the future by giving them a shot today. Summer marks a time of year when many young people are looking for their first jobs, a way to earn money and develop soft skills. In a recent survey conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of McDonald’s, 88 percent of respondents considered the opportunity to develop soft skills “important,” including 60 percent who consider the opportunity to be “very important.”

Employers have an important role to play in the workforce development of not only their own employees but of America’s workforce. And with the workplace now home to five generations for the first time in U.S. history, they have their work cut out for them with rising to meet a diverse range of needs, priorities, and goals, as well as varied learning styles. Collectively, companies should feel a responsibility to support all generations, but especially this young generation at what’s arguably the most critical point in their career journey. The skills young people learn are at their first job are not only contributory but essential, in putting them on a path to promotion and, most importantly, long-term prosperity.

Take for example those who make their first jobs in the quick service restaurant industry: They have to work with both precision and speed to deliver their customers’ food, often dealing with a large volume in quick succession. It’s a great way to build critical skills like active listening, customer service, face-to-face communication and personal responsibility that are transferable to nearly any industry.

So why does this matter? Experts will tell you the skills you learn in your first job are the cornerstones of your career success. In today’s world, people switch jobs and careers with much greater frequency. Research projects a person may now have as many as 16 jobs over the course of one’s career. You will leave many jobs, but you will always take your skills with you.

We can no longer simply ignore the gap. The skills gap is growing, and it needs our immediate attention. Call it up-skilling or right-skilling, the reality is the workforce requires a significant commitment to employee learning and development.

To keep pace with innovation and a dynamic workforce there are four ways employers can take action today:

1) Think beyond on-the-job training: Provide employees the skills and capabilities that will set them up for short- and long-term success for on the job as well as forward-thinking.

2) Enhance communications skills: Put your employees in customer settings so they learn first-hand how to best provide exceptional service and resolve issues.

3) Hire with a purpose: Employers must think beyond just their company needs and focus on being a good corporate citizen. Hire knowing every individual can make a positive impact in the communities you operate in. Not only is this the right thing to do, younger generations expect it.

4) Allow for flexibility: Listen to your employees to understand how they learn best and adapt your practices to ensure they get what they need. With five generations in the workforce, we don’t live in a one-size-fits-all world, so each employee will have a varying learning track.

By closing the skills gap, our nation is championing its legacy that leaves future generations more prosperous than previous ones.