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As Digital Rises, Soft Skills Training Grows More Critical

As Digital Rises, Soft Skills Training Grows More Critical

October 17, 2018

I’ll be honest. When I stepped into the room for my final session at the Industrial Supply Association’s Women Industrial Supply Executives (W.I.S.E.) annual conference in late September, I didn’t have high expectations. 

The session was focused on style. I remember thinking: “Really, style?” It felt a little stereotypical to have a session on how to dress at a women’s conference.

Thankfully, the session surpassed my expectations and went far beyond just looks to focus on image and confidence. When I returned home and told my husband about the breakout session, he replied: “I wish I could participate in a session like that.”

His response reaffirmed for me the thought I’d had at W.I.S.E: Why don’t more industry events and training programs focus on soft skills like time management, leadership, professionalism and communication? The entire focus of W.I.S.E this year was on personal and leadership development, including skills like:

  • Public speaking
  • Developing a personal brand
  • Communicating a clear and actionable message
  • Understanding your own communication style and how to work with others’
  • Work-life balance

It was one of the best conferences I’ve attended, and that says a lot. I took home a lot of practical insights that are helping me communicate more clearly, speak more effectively and present myself more professionally.

It turns out, my gut feeling that companies aren’t doing enough training on soft skills was right. The 2018 Workplace Learning Report from LinkedIn, based on a survey of talent developers across industries, identified soft skills training as the No. 1 gap that companies are looking to fill this year. Skills like communication, collaboration and leadership never become obsolete, the report says, compared with the “limited life of hard skills.” Companies need to “soften the impact of automation” on the workforce.

The distribution industry is not immune. Consider some of the changes we’re seeing:

  • The shift from in-person to electronic communication
  • The changing roles of salespeople and others in your organization
  • An increasingly multigenerational work force 

In my past life as a writer covering industrial distribution association conferences, I sat through dozens and dozens of breakout sessions. While usually very valuable, many of the sessions spoke more to hard skills and management strategies like sales force organization and analytics, and less on how to navigate the challenges we all face every day, regardless of role. There needs to be a greater balance.

After all, the need for a human touch is not going to go away, both internally to drive effective collaboration among your team, and externally with customers. In fact, it’s because of the increasingly digital nature of our businesses that the importance of these soft skills will continue to grow. And as millennials move into leadership positions and Gen Z forms the front lines of your organization, the need becomes even more critical. A Deloitte survey of millennials and Gen Z found that these generations are looking to their employers to fill the need. “Perhaps sensing that automation can free them from repetitive and mundane tasks to focus on assignments that require a more personal touch, young professionals are especially seeking help building confidence, interpersonal skills and – particularly for Gen Z – ethics/integrity aptitude,” the report’s authors said.

I guess my initial reaction wasn’t so off after all. There’s a real demand for training around these skills. Complement your product and hard skills training with the interpersonal skills your team and the industry as a whole needs to remain relevant and competitive long into the future.

Lindsay Konzak is president of 3 Aspens Media and the former editor of MDM. 3 Aspens Media produces marketing content for companies in or serving the distribution and manufacturing industries. Reach her at, 970-581-1752 or visit

© 2019 Gale Media, Inc.

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