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.

In this article, you will learn what hard and soft skills are, why they are important, how you can learn them and communicate them to employers, and which jobs require more hard or soft skills.

It may be useful to consider hard skills as “technical” skills and soft skills as “workplace” skills. For decades, technical skills have been defined as teachable and quantifiable, and workplace skills (sometimes referred to as “human” or “people” 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.

What are technical skills?

Hard skills, or technical skills, are the practical know-how needed to complete a specific task. For example, a nurse learns how to give a vaccine dose, 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.

What are workplace skills?

Workplace skills, often referred to as soft skills, relate to how you work and are typically desirable across all professions and industries. These are the skills that make you a good employee, colleague, and overall human regardless of your job title. These skills may be less tangible but are just as important and obtainable as technical skills. Workplace skills include communication, teamwork, leadership, and problem solving.

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]. LinkedIn’s top five in-demand workplace skills in 2020 were creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and emotional intelligence [2].

Technical skills Workplace skills
  • Computer programming languages (Python, Ruby, etc.) and coding
  • proficiency in a foreign language
  • Adobe software database management
  • data analytics (including SEO/SEM marketing)
  • sales or business analysis
  • financial management or accounting
  • UX design, surgical/medical proficiency
  • service/hospitality-related skills (bookkeeping, plumbing, etc.)
  • writing
  • editing and reporting
  • teaching
  • cooking/baking
  • engineering knowledge
  • Creativity
  • empathy
  • teamwork
  • problem-solving
  • critical thinking
  • adaptability/flexibility
  • organization
  • integrity
  • effective communication
  • reliability/dependability
  • open-mindedness
  • punctuality
  • time management
  • attention to detail
  • strategic thinking
  • conflict resolution
  • work ethic

Why both matter to employers

Technical and workplace skills are complementary. Both are important to employers because they indicate that you are proficient in the practical aspects but can contribute to a positive work environment.

As more and more jobs become automated, job seekers can make themselves more competitive in the market with the right set of workplace skills, such as a growth mindset and empathy, that cannot be replaced by technology. 

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 [3]. An estimated 87 percent of employers struggled to fill positions due to a lack of workplace skills in 2021, according to Monster [4]. Some jobs now require personality tests and other ways to evaluate workplace skills.


How to leverage your skills for career success

Both technical and workplace skills are necessary for career success. From identifying your existing skills to building a network, here are steps to take to leverage both for a fulfilling career.

Identify your existing skills.

Recognizing your own existing technical and workplace skills is an excellent way to gain confidence in your capabilities. Try this guided exercise:

1. Reflect on your past professional and personal experiences. It may be helpful to think in chronological order:

  • If you’ve had a job before, what were your daily tasks?

  • If you’ve taken classes, which subjects did you excel in? What projects did you feel excited about?

  • Describe a time when you overcame a challenge.

  • Describe a time when you had limited time to make a decision.

2. Write down a list of your skills. Create a mind map of traits, abilities, and talents, connecting them to specific moments in your life. 

3. Organize and separate the skills into two columns, technical and workplace.

Highlight 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

  • Received 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

  • 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.

Demonstrate 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 example, 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.

Show 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.

Build your skills on the job.

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.

Use your skills for networking.

Networking presents yet another opportunity to use and develop skills. When building your network, it is helpful to start within your current industry, or perhaps one that you aspire for. You might attend a UX design panel and connect with a fellow attendee who is equally passionate about promoting diversity within UX design. Together, you could start a freelance database of diverse UX designers.

While on the job, you may meet many acquaintances. Even if none of them become lifelong friends, it is wise to keep in touch by email and LinkedIn. Creating lasting, authentic connections can help you find new opportunities in the future. Up to 80 percent of available jobs are not advertised, according to Cornell University’s Career Center [1]. When a position opens up on a former coworker’s team, they might think of you and reach out.

The right balance of skills for the job you want

Look closely, and you'll find that most jobs require a combination of workplace and technical skills. Some job titles, like software developer or content writer, may seem to emphasize technical skills at first glance. But you'll also benefit from communication and problem-solving skills as you produce brand copy or write and document code.

Other jobs, such as marketing manager, require strength in both data analytics (a technical skill) and creative thinking (a workplace skill). Jobs in human resources, events management, and sales tend to call for strong empathy, communication, and teamwork, as well as data analytics skills, any of which could be learned through on-the-job experience or through a course or training.

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:

Consider a Professional Certificate to build job-ready technical skills in a wide variety of subject areas:

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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 November 23, 2021.

2. 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 November 23, 2021.

3. 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 November 23, 2021.

4. Monster. “The Future of Work 2021: Global Hiring Outlook, https://hiring.monster.com/employer-resources/blog/labor-statistics/future-of-work-2021-summary/.” Accessed November 23, 2021.

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