Soft Skills vs Hard Skills in the SME Jobs Market


Small and medium-sized business owners are turning to apprentices and new recruits with ‘practical’ skills rather than those with academic qualifications. Are hard skills really the best for helping SMEs to grow, or will soft skills make a comeback in the near future?


Growing numbers of small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are employing recruits with practical skills over those with university degrees, according to a recent study.

Research from business development consultancy Sandler Training suggests that academic qualifications are losing their attraction for small businesses.

Business insight


Three out of four SMEs believe that a degree is now worth less than it was 10 years ago when it comes to getting a job, according to the study. With degrees viewed to be less valuable, the focus is now on practical skills.

The survey of 1,000 small business owners found that on-the-job skills and relevant experience are increasingly important to employers.

Following the economic downturn, employers have been far more focused on what skills new recruits can bring to the table. Recruiting in an ‘employer’s market’ means that businesses have had a wider pool of candidates to choose from, often preferring an experienced recruit rather than a new graduate.

Vocational skills

The survey suggests that SMEs – which employ 58% of the UK’s private sector workforce – prefer hard practical skills over paper qualifications.

Hard skills are usually related to knowledge or techniques which can be taught, for example computer programming, electrical skills and operating machinery. Apprentices learn on the job and can be taught these skills.

A number of key skills such as selling don’t require qualifications but are essential for business growth. Having vocational skills can show that an employee is dedicated and passionate about the job.

But, there’s no point having an expert in a particular field unless they are fully-rounded employees. When running a small business, every staff member counts. A skills shortage can have a negative impact on your business and your bottom line.

Soft skills

Soft skills are personal qualities and attitudes – they are subjective and are therefore much harder to prove than a hard skill. Also known as interpersonal skills, these are transferable and can be used in many different types of jobs.

Soft skills include time management, mediation and communication skills. A successful employee needs to have honed problem-solving skills, along with the ability to work under pressure and be a team player. Being able to build a rapport with colleagues and clients is essential for good business practice.

Having a degree is not necessarily a sign of quality, nor does it mean that the graduate has key skills. Common sense and initiative is not something that can be taught – but graduates can learn by example. If they’re willing to learn, you can even show them how to get a commercial insurance quote – this doesn’t require a maths degree!

Degrees in engineering, science and mathematics are still highly valued by employers but practical experience can help consolidate knowledge and understanding.

Mixing the two

In an ideal world, an employee would have a perfect blend of soft and hard skills. The person would have strong, relevant technical knowledge and good interpersonal skills.

As the economy continues to recover, small business owners are likely to recognise the importance of soft skills. A motivated team player who is responsible and committed can learn on the job. This applies to both apprentices and graduates. However, graduates should try to gain professional experience to keep them ahead of the competition.


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