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If you want to be valuable in today’s job market, it’s not enough simply to be a computer programmer or an engineer or a scientist. These days, you have to be a people person, too. Qualified workers with good social skills are increasingly drawing premium offers from employers, says David J. Deming, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Kennedy School. Deming’s research has found that positions that rely on workers’ ability to collaborate are growing faster, and paying more, than the rest of the job market. For instance, the number of computer scientists and accountants rose between 1980 and 2012, while engineering and scientific technician jobs declined. All three occupations require similar mathematical abilities, Deming found, but technicians generally don’t need the same level of social skills.
Deming sat down with the Globe to discuss how workplaces are rethinking the value of personal interactions.
Which social skills are most valuable in the workplace?
It’s this idea of being able to work with others. You and I are going to work on a team together. Can we communicate enough to know that you’re going to be good at the writing, and I’m going to be good at the data analysis, because those are our comparative advantages?
That’s the idea of good social skills: understanding other people and understanding where you fit in.
Can workers protect their jobs from being automated by focusing on their social skills?
What is our fundamental advantage over machines? It’s that we’re a general-purpose technology. You can communicate with me; you can stand up and navigate a crowded restaurant; you can sit down and do a math problem. You can do all of those things, and you can effortlessly move between them in a way that is really flexible, and you can respond to unanticipated circumstances. It’s easy to make a machine that can do any one task better than a person, but it’s very hard to make a machine that can do all of those tasks.
The period you studied coincided with a significant increase in the number of women in the workplace. Do you think that had any effect on the finding that social skills have become more valuable?
It is true in the data [that] women tend to be in jobs that require more communication than men. Since those are the jobs that are growing, the real question is which is causing which? Is it the case that because women entered the workforce in large numbers over the past few decades, jobs have therefore become more reliant on teamwork, or is it actually because jobs have become more reliant on teamwork [that] we hire women more than men? Or is it both things happening at the same time? It’s probably a bit of both.
Are hard skills ever enough on their own?
I think in a hot field like computer science, people on the cutting edge are always going to be valuable, regardless of their level of social skills. But having a “hard skill” talent and having good interpersonal skills is the golden ticket.
Is it ever too late to learn good social skills?
My instinct is that much like IQ or general intelligence, some people are born with different amounts of it, but you can work on what you have.
Ever since I worked on this paper, I’ve tried to work harder on myself. I try to listen to what someone is saying instead of just waiting for my turn to speak. It sounds kind of strange, but actually connecting with someone as they speak, looking them in the eye, thinking about their perspective — that works for me.