Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills: What’s the Difference?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Knowing the difference between hard and soft skills can help you navigate your career.

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You might have heard that you need hard and soft skills to succeed in your career. Chances are, you already have some of both.

Hard skills are the things you know how to do, while soft skills are the characteristics of your approach. It can help to think about hard skills as your technical skills and soft skills as your workplace or human skills.

In this article, we'll further compare hard and soft skills and discuss how to leverage both to further your career.

Hard skills vs. soft skills

Traditionally, technical skills have been defined as teachable and quantifiable, and workplace skills as innate and learned from experience. However, this is becoming less true. Technical skills and workplace skills can both be learned on the job, in the classroom, and in daily life. They are now seen as complementary skill sets.

Technical skills Workplace skills
  • Computer programming languages (Python, Ruby, etc.) and coding
  • Proficiency in a foreign language
  • Database management
  • Data analytics
  • SEO/SEM marketing
  • Sales or business analysis
  • Financial management
  • UX design
  • Medical proficiency
  • Bookkeeping
  • Plumbing
  • Writing and editing
  • Reporting
  • Teaching
  • Cooking and baking
  • Engineering
  • Creativity
  • Empathy
  • Teamwork
  • Problem-solving
  • Critical thinking
  • Adaptability and flexibility
  • Organization
  • Integrity
  • Effective communication
  • Reliability and dependability
  • Open-mindedness
  • Punctuality
  • Time management
  • Attention to detail
  • Strategic thinking
  • Conflict resolution
  • Work ethic

Both are important to employers because they indicate that you are proficient in the practical aspects and can contribute to a positive and productive work environment. In fact, business leaders state that workplace skills, such as networking, enthusiasm, professionalism, communication, and critical thinking, are even more important than technical skills, according to the US Department of Labor [1].

Workplace skills are on the rise

As work becomes increasingly automated, social and emotional skills are becoming more crucial. Nearly all of the top 10 most valuable skills for the 2030 market in the US and the UK are workplace skills, according to Pearson and Nester [2]. An estimated 87 percent of employers struggled to fill positions due to a lack of workplace skills in 2021, according to Monster [3]. Some jobs now require personality tests and other ways to evaluate workplace skills.

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Read more: 7 High-Income Skills Worth Learning in 2022

What are hard skills?

Hard skills are the practical know-how needed to complete a specific task. For example, a nurse learns how to administer a vaccine, or a waiter takes customer orders according to a restaurant’s special method. Technical skills can range from learning a foreign language to using forecasting analysis to predict the stock market.

Hard skills examples

Technical skills describe what you know how to do. Some examples of technical skills are:

  • Computer programming languages

  • Data analysis

  • Engineering

  • Financial management

  • Speaking a foreign language

  • UX design

  • Web development

  • Writing and editing

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What are soft skills?

Workplace skills relate to how you work and tend to be described qualitatively. These are the attributes that make you a good employee, colleague, and overall human regardless of your job title. For this reason, they are often good transferable skills. LinkedIn’s top five in-demand workplace skills in 2020 were creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and emotional intelligence [4].

Soft skills examples

Workplace skills describe your approach to or attributes of your work. Some examples of workplace skills are:

  • Adaptability

  • Collaboration

  • Critical thinking

  • Empathy

  • Organization

  • Problem-solving

  • Strategic thinking

  • Teamwork

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How to leverage your skills for career success

Both technical and workplace skills are necessary for career success, and one of the best places to develop skills—technical and workplace alike—is on the job.

Approach each role as a potential learning experience. You might ask yourself, how can this data analysis be done faster or more accurately? Or you might design an innovative system for collecting marketing stories within the company. These are ways that you can build your problem-solving and critical-thinking skills alongside your technical skills.

As a colleague, you may improve your teamwork and organizational skills by working with cross-functional teams. You can organize an outing or team-building activity to foster a positive spirit. As a manager or leader, you can enhance your workplace skills by taking the time to get to know your team members. This might include active listening and providing mentorship or support to create a culture of belonging.

Then, be sure to highlight your complete skill set on your resume, on a job application, and during an interview.

Highlighting skills on your resume

It is considered good practice to tailor your resume to each job you apply for. Match specific technical and workplace skills from the job description to those from your list when describing your previous responsibilities.

Here’s an example, with technical skills in italics and workplace skills underlined:

Waiter at Longhorn Grill, Houston, TX / October 2019-Present

  • Completed comprehensive training for proper food handling, including equipment cleaning, proper freezer temperatures and placement, and executing employee handwashing rules

  • Developed a new reward system for employees, resulting in improved attendance and increased employee satisfaction

  • Assisted in training five new waiters, demonstrating strong attention to detail, leadership, and conflict resolution techniques

Most employers are looking for people who are proficient in both. Showcasing technical and workplace skills side by side in your resume could make you more appealing to recruiters and hiring managers.

Read more: How to Feature and Format Key Skills on Your Resume

Demonstrating your skills in a job application

Some job applications require a cover letter, which is a great place to highlight your technical and workplace skills. For instance, if you are applying for a marketing manager position, you might describe a project in which you curated a team of Instagram and TikTok influencers to launch a new product that resulted in five times the projected sales in the first week. This example shows you can be innovative and are proficient in using platforms to measure data.

For creative jobs, you may be asked to supply a portfolio, a case study, or writing samples. These are opportunities to demonstrate your technical skills in graphic design, user research, or writing, as well as your workplace skills in creativity and time management.

Showing your skills in a job interview

While you'll likely talk about your technical skills during an interview, you can also use it as an opportunity to demonstrate some workplace skills, like good communication and attention to detail. Polite etiquette, such as accepting a calendar invite and sending thank-you emails, makes a good first impression. The same goes for being on time, whether it is an in-person or Zoom interview.

During the interview, you may find the STAR method helpful for providing thorough responses. STAR stands for situation, task, action, and result.

Here’s an example of an answer that uses the STAR method, with technical skills in italics and workplace skills underlined:

  • Situation: At my former job as a sales associate, a coworker resigned just before a big deadline for their project.

  • Task: I was asked to take over the project and complete weeks of work in just a few days. 

  • Action: I asked my manager to dial back my responsibilities for the week and delegated the work to other members of the sales team. Then, I spent two days learning about the project and brushing up on Excel. My intern and I devised a strategy to finish the assignment within five days.

  • Result: By dedicating time to the special project, I finished on time and with accuracy. My manager appreciated my dedication and I was trusted with more projects after that.

Get started with Coursera

There are many ways to build your technical and workplace skills throughout your career. Learn at your own pace as you enhance your workplace skills with a course like:

Professional Certificates also build job-ready technical skills in a wide variety of subjects.

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Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Article sources

1. US Department of Labor. “Soft Skills: The Competitive Edge, https://www.dol.gov/agencies/odep/publications/fact-sheets/soft-skills-the-competitive-edge.” Accessed August 18, 2022.

2. Pearson, Nesta, and The Oxford Martin School. “The Future of Skills Employment 2020, https://media.nesta.org.uk/documents/the_future_of_skills_employment_in_2030_0.pdf.” Accessed August 18, 2022.

3. Monster. “The Future of Work 2021: Global Hiring Outlook, https://hiring.monster.com/employer-resources/blog/labor-statistics/future-of-work-2021-summary/.” Accessed August 18, 2022.

4. LinkedIn. “The Most In-Demand Hard and Soft Skills of 2020, https://www.linkedin.com/business/talent/blog/talent-strategy/linkedin-most-in-demand-hard-and-soft-skills.” Accessed August 18, 2022.

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