Definition

hard skills

Contributor(s): Mary K. Pratt

Hard skills are specific abilities, or capabilities, that an individual can possess and demonstrate in a measured way.

Possessing a hard skill connotes mastery and an expertise within the individual to perform a specific task or series of tasks to complete a job.

Measuring hard skills

Hard skills are demonstrable and quantifiable; individuals who possess hard skills can be tested to prove their capacity in each hard skill they possess.

There are objective metrics that can be applied to the hard skill, not just subjective judgment.

Furthermore, an individual's proficiency in any particular hard skill can be measured against the proficiency of other individuals who possess that same hard skill.

Typing, for example, is a hard skill. Two individuals with the ability to type can be tested for speed and accuracy, with their scores determining which individual is more proficient in the skill.

Skill training

Although some individuals can have innate abilities that make it easier for them to learn a hard skill either through formal lessons or in informal ways, most people develop hard skills through some sort of educational process.

For example, some people have a natural sense of numbers that makes it easier for them to learn basic as well as complex math; yet, they, as well as others, learn math through a series of lessons.

Individuals learn hard skills in various ways, including learning them in traditional schools, colleges and vocational education programs. Individuals can also learn hard skills through apprenticeships, mentoring, on-the-job training and hands-on training. Individuals can teach themselves hard skills, too, through books, online platforms and even through trial and error.

Certificates, diplomas, licenses and test scores are often used as proof that an individual has achieved a certain level of proficiency for a particular hard skill or set of hard skills.

A driver's license, for instance, demonstrates that an individual has demonstrated a minimum level of proficiency as determined by the government agency issuing the driver's license. A commercial driver's license shows that an individual has achieved another, higher level of proficiency.

Hard skills can also be considered technical skills.

Hard skills vs. soft skills

Soft skills, on the other hand, are characteristics or capabilities that are nearly impossible to quantify or measure in an objective way. Thus, judging one's soft skills is a subjective exercise.

Some soft skills are described as intangible; for example, being a good listener is a capacity that describes an individual's ability to hear a speaker's words and understand and empathize with the speaker. Although someone could measure the ability to correctly hear the speaker's words, the soft skill comes in the listener's capacity to understand and empathize -- a skill that's practically impossible to quantify, measure and compare against someone else using objective standards.

An educational program teaches students soft and hard skills.

Soft skills are often called interpersonal skills or people skills.

Additionally, soft skills can describe an individual's own characteristics; examples of such soft skills include having a good work ethic or working well with others.

Individuals generally have a disposition that favors the expression of specific soft skills, but there is an element of nature vs. nurture as well. There aren't traditional degree programs or vocational programs focused on soft skills, but colleges, schools, organizations and even companies do indeed invest in developing soft skills in individuals.

Individuals can seek out learning opportunities and activities on their own to cultivate soft skills within themselves as well.

Why hard skills are important

Nearly all jobs today, including most professional positions, require hard skills.

Job descriptions frequently list a series of hard skills needed to be hired, and they also often list the preferred proof of such skills, such as degrees or certificates, that each job applicant needs in order to be considered for the position.

Possessing specific hard skills demonstrates one's ability to successfully perform the job and fulfill its duties.

For many professions in many companies, the possession of hard skills is important to ensure a company's financial success; however, in some instances, the worker's hard skills are critical to preventing catastrophic results. A surgeon, for example, must have very specific hard skills to ensure against unnecessary harm to a patient; a pipefitter must also be exacting in his or her application of hard skills to ensure against something like a gas leak.

Furthermore, many employers seek out soft skills, finding that interpersonal skills are needed -- sometimes in equal measure to their hard skills -- for individuals to successfully complete the jobs they're assigned to do.

Hard skills in demand today

According to LinkedIn, the most in-demand hard skills for 2018 are:

  • cloud and distributed computing
  • statistical analysis and data mining
  • middleware and integration software
  • web architecture and development framework
  • user interface design
  • software revision control systems
  • data presentation
  • SEO/SEM marketing
  • mobile development
  • network and information security

LinkedIn also published the most in-demand soft skills, based in its survey of 2,000 business leaders. They are leadership, communication, collaboration and time management skills.

This was last updated in March 2018

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