Ever been waiting at a hectic Starbucks when someone complains that they got the wrong order? Chances are, the barista responded quickly. After apologizing, confirming the correct order—make it sugar-free or hold the whipped cream—the barista made a new drink in double-time while assuring you and all the other customers that their orders were progressing right on schedule.

All it looked like in the moment was a hasty series of actions: the barista leaning in to hear the customer, a flurry of motion behind the espresso machine, and a new cup sliding across the counter.

But that quick resolution required a complex set of competencies—customer advocacy, communication, and managing competing priorities—along with technical skills like maneuvering equipment while mastering the domain knowledge of a seemingly infinite number of recipes.

These human skills—known variously as soft skills, transferable skills, or power skills—are at a premium in today’s job market. In a 2013 survey, nearly 44 percent of senior executives reported that candidates’ lack of soft skills, such as communication and critical thinking, made it difficult to fill jobs. These skills will only become more valuable with time. As routine or repetitive tasks become automated, demonstrating emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills could become the most valuable career prep of the future. When layered with technical or industry-specific knowledge, these skills can propel someone from an entry-level job to a stable career path. 

So how can job candidates make these skills stand out?

Many workers are already developing these skills every day. When you look at the 44 million adults today who have less than a college degree and earn less than a living wage, many have cultivated human skills through jobs, gigs, or the responsibilities they have with family or in the community. Why aren’t these highly marketable assets helping them ladder up to better opportunities? 

In today’s job market, where the number of job openings exceeds unemployment, jobseekers should have their pick of opportunities. But if these needed skills remain hidden—both from potential employers and from the jobseekers themselves—employers will continue to endure prolonged hiring searches, while qualified applicants will continue to receive a string of rejections.

Here are some ways to call attention to those skills.

Against that backdrop, a growing number of entrepreneurs and technologists are focused on building tools and systems to better match employers with jobseekers who possess these needed human skills. For their solutions to succeed, employers must first develop and communicate a clearer understanding of the specific skills they need. At the same time, jobseekers must learn to frame and explain their experiences in employer-friendly language. To do that, jobseekers need a better understanding of the skills they’ve already acquired. 

For Project Basta founder Sheila Sarem, an asset-based approach helps jobseekers uncover the overlooked skills and talents they already possess. Project Basta helps first-generation college students of color make the leap to their first post-college job. Even with a bachelor’s degree in hand, program participants don’t always have the same job preparation experiences as their peers. Project Basta helps participants understand how to make the experiences they do have count. For example, if they’re aiming for a career in finance, Project Basta teaches them that a job at Target can make them just as valuable a candidate as someone who interned at an investment bank. 

When hiring managers see that Target job listed on a resume, Sarem said, they might brush it off without fully grasping its relevance. “The recruiter is going to assume that the student works on Saturdays for beer money, right? They’re not going to assume that the student works 40 hours a week and manages a team of eight while also carrying a full course load,” Sarem said.

Project Basta helps jobseekers convey why their unique experiences matter. For example, the student working 40 hours a week at Target likely learned leadership and project management skills—and that is what the hiring manager needs to hear.

The key is “knowing and communicating your own value,” Sarem explained. “We really have to train our young people to figure out how they own and then tell their own story.” 

When jobseekers can identify and explain the relevance of what they’ve learned, that initial retail job becomes a stepping stone to greater opportunity.

Crossing over from an entry-level service job into a career-making corporate role can come down to speaking the same language. Using a combination of skills training and network building, Bay Area-based Climb Hire trains students for desirable, well-paying Salesforce administrator roles. Nitzan Pelman, the CEO and founder of Climb Hire, often works with her students to recast their work experience into terms that make sense to employers. 

“It’s been an amazing opportunity for me to learn their stories and help them translate their stories,” Pelman said.

When she was prepping one of her students for an interview, Pelman said, the student told her a story about coping with a delivery delay in his job at Trader Joe’s. Initially, the student didn’t see much relevance in how he reacted to a major workforce challenge. 

But when Pelman repeated the student’s story, using interview-friendly language to describe how he successfully managed a complex situation, the student recognized that he had demonstrated skills like critical thinking, initiative, and quick problem-solving. Just as importantly, he recognized how he could effectively tell that same story to a hiring manager.

Better pathways to and through the workforce

Both Project Basta and Climb Hire are helping learners navigate career pathways by teaching them to tell compelling stories about their skills and competencies. Using stories to translate experiences into in-demand skills creates new pathways into desirable careers that benefit both sides of the talent equation. Jobseekers of all backgrounds get greater access to hiring opportunities, and employers save time and money by connecting with talent they may otherwise have passed over.

For that barista, a long day of brewing and blending is also an on-the-job training session in human skills. Using that knowledge, she can map out a route from the experiences and skills she already possesses to her next career destination. 

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