April 23, 2024

In a Softening Market, Soft Skills Become an MSP’s Superpower

In many ways, the staffing industry is a barometer of the overall economic climate. When businesses are booming, MSPs and their staffing partners typically witness a surge in requisitions and placement activity. This was the case in 2023, when hiring rose to record levels following the uncertainty that accompanied the aftermath of the pandemic. However, during economic downturns, placements tend to dip. The United States economy is healthy, but 2024 represents a cooling market. As Staffing Industry Analysts (SIA) reported recently, temp hours were down by 13%. In a potentially softening market, MSPs and their clients may need to shift their focus to a critical, yet often overlooked, set of qualifications: soft skills.

Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills: Why the Balance Matters

Traditionally, staffing has prioritized hard skills – the technical knowledge and experience specific to a job description. A programmer needs to know coding languages, an accountant needs to understand financial statements, and so on. While hard skills remain essential for baseline competency, the ability to excel in a role hinges on a different set of attributes – soft skills.

Soft skills encompass a range of interpersonal and intrapersonal abilities that contribute to an individual's effectiveness in the workplace. Following are among the most highly sought-after skills.

  • Communication: This includes both written and verbal communication skills. Can the candidate clearly articulate their ideas, listen attentively, and provide constructive feedback? Effective communication is the foundation for strong teamwork and collaboration.
  • Adaptability: The ability to adjust to changing circumstances, new technologies, and evolving business needs is crucial in today's fast-paced world. Can the candidate learn new things quickly, embrace change, and thrive in an uncertain environment?
  • Problem-solving: Businesses are constantly faced with challenges. Can the candidate think critically, analyze information, develop creative solutions, and overcome obstacles? Strong problem-solving skills are essential for driving innovation and navigating complex situations.
  • Teamwork: Very few jobs exist in a vacuum. The ability to collaborate effectively with colleagues from diverse backgrounds, share credit, and prioritize team goals is essential for success.
  • Work Ethic: A strong work ethic demonstrates a commitment to excellence, a willingness to go the extra mile, and a dedication to meeting deadlines. Employers value candidates who are self-motivated, reliable, and take ownership of their work.
  • Time Management: Juggling multiple tasks and meeting deadlines is a reality for most workers. Can the candidate manage their time effectively, prioritize tasks efficiently, and meet deadlines consistently?
  • Leadership: The ability to inspire and motivate others, delegate tasks effectively, and take responsibility for results.

Why Soft Skills Matter More Than Ever

In a softening market, where competition for jobs intensifies, soft skills become the differentiator. The nature of work is evolving, and automation has assumed more specialized tasks. There are several factors contributing to this shift.

  • Automation and AI: As technology advances, automation and artificial intelligence are taking over many routine tasks. This puts a premium on human skills like creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving – all areas where soft skills shine.
  • The Remote Workforce: With the increasing popularity of remote work arrangements, effective communication and collaboration become even more important. Soft skills like active listening, empathy, and building trust are essential for fostering strong relationships across geographical distances.
  • The Changing Nature of Work: The job landscape is constantly evolving. Roles are becoming more complex and require a broader skill set. Individuals who possess strong soft skills are more adaptable and can readily transition to new roles or learn new skills.

In this environment, where the presence of automation continues to expand, the ability to collaborate, communicate effectively, and solve problems creatively becomes paramount. 

  • Reduced Turnover: Strong communication, teamwork, and interpersonal skills all contribute to a more positive and collaborative work environment. This can lead to higher employee satisfaction and reduced turnover, which is crucial for businesses looking to control costs during a downturn.
  • Increased Efficiency: Effective communication and problem-solving skills can help teams resolve issues more quickly and efficiently. This translates to increased productivity and cost savings for businesses.
  • Improved Customer Service: In a competitive market, exceptional customer service is essential for retaining clients. Employees with strong communication, interpersonal skills, and a positive attitude can build trust and rapport with customers, leading to higher satisfaction and loyalty.
  • Greater Adaptability: The ability to adapt to change is critical for surviving and thriving in a softening market. Employees with strong soft skills are better equipped to handle new challenges, learn new technologies, and adjust to evolving business priorities.
  • Future-Proofing Your Workforce: The skills required for specific jobs are constantly evolving. However, strong soft skills remain relevant across industries and roles. By investing in candidates with exceptional soft skills, businesses are better positioned for long-term success.

Identifying Strong Soft Skills in Candidates

For MSPs who must respond to clients seeking talent with a greater emphasis on soft skills, the challenge becomes identifying people who possess these valuable soft skills during the hiring process. This is where MSPs and their staffing partners have a solid opportunity to collaborate on strategic sourcing practices to attract the right candidates. Here are some examples.

  • Behavioral Interviewing: Staffing providers must move beyond traditional interview questions that focus solely on technical skills. Instead, they should implement behavioral interviewing techniques that delve into a candidate's past experiences. Questions should prompt them to describe situations in which they demonstrated strong communication, problem-solving, or teamwork abilities. For example, instead of saying, “Tell me about your experience with project management software,” ask, “Describe a time when you had to manage a complex project with multiple stakeholders. How did you ensure clear communication and keep the project on track?” By focusing on past behaviors, you gain valuable insights into how a candidate might approach similar situations in the future.
  • Situational Judgement Tests (SJTs): These assessments present candidates with hypothetical workplace scenarios and ask them to choose the most appropriate course of action. SJTs can be a valuable tool in evaluating a candidate's problem-solving, decision-making, and interpersonal skills.
  • Soft Skills Assessments: Several online assessments can gauge a candidate's soft skills. While these shouldn't be the sole factor in a staffing supplier’s decision-making, they can provide additional data points to consider alongside interview performance.
  • Work Sample Tests: Assign the candidate a task or project that mirrors the type of work they would be doing in the role. This can provide insights into their communication, problem-solving, and time management skills.
  • Reference Checks: Talk to past employers and colleagues to get a well-rounded picture of the candidate's soft skills.
  • Teamwork Exercises: During the interview process, MSPs and staffing providers may want to consider incorporating activities that require candidates to work together on a task. This can be a great way to observe their communication, collaboration, and problem-solving skills in a real-world setting.

Helping Candidates Showcase Their Soft Skills

Beyond identifying in-demand soft skills across the candidate pool, staffing providers can also play a crucial role in helping showcase talent with these strengths to MSPs, which aids program managers in more effectively selling candidates to clients.

  • Resume and Cover Letter Coaching: Staffing suppliers can work with candidates to craft resumes and cover letters that highlight their soft skills. Encourage them to use action verbs and specific examples to demonstrate how they have applied these skills in past experiences. For example, instead of simply listing "communication skills" on a resume, a candidate could elaborate: "Successfully managed a cross-functional team of engineers and designers, ensuring clear communication and project completion within deadlines."
  • Soft Skills Workshops: Staffing providers could also consider offering workshops or training sessions focused on developing and showcasing soft skills. These sessions could cover topics like effective communication, conflict resolution, and teamwork strategies. By equipping job seekers with the tools and vocabulary to articulate their soft skills, the probability of placements increases significantly.

By prioritizing soft skills in a softening market, MSPs can help clients find the right people for this shifting landscape. Companies seeking top talent will appreciate a pool of candidates who can not only handle the technical aspects of the job but also thrive in a collaborative and ever-evolving work environment. Job seekers who hone their soft skills will find themselves well-positioned to navigate any economic climate and secure fulfilling careers regardless of industry.

Photo by Olav Ahrens Røtne on Unsplash

Continue reading

Our newsletter

Get great curated articles every week.

Combine sections from Ollie's vast component library and create beautiful, detailed pages.
No spam!

Innovative talent powering a brighter future.