Bridging the Soft Skills Gap Among Today’s Young Talent

Excerpt from “Bridging the Skills Gap: Teaching the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent” by Bruce Tulgan (Wiley, September 2015).

The No. 1 challenge with today’s young talent is a problem hiding in plain sight: the ever-widening “Soft Skills Gap.”

Today’s newest new young workforce has so much to offer—new technical skills, new ideas, new perspective, new energy. Yet too many of them are held back—often unwittingly—because of their weak soft skills.

Here’s what managers say:

  • “They just don’t know how to behave professionally.”
  •  “They arrive late, leave early, dress inappropriately, and spend too much time on social media.”
  • “They know how to text, but they don’t know how to write a memo.”
  • “They don’t know what to say and what not to say or how to behave in meetings.”
  • “They don’t know how to think, learn, or communicate without checking a device.”
  • “They don’t have enough respect for authority, and don’t know the first thing about good citizenship, service, or teamwork

There is a growing gap between the expectations of employers and the reality of how today’s new young talent is showing up in the workplace. Today’s young stars may well show up with the latest and greatest tools and tricks. Indeed, many of them seem to have developed almost “super powers” in their chosen areas of interest and focus. They are often masters of the newfangled. What they are missing—way too often and more and more—is the old-fashioned basics. What many refer to as “the soft skills.”

What do young people have to say about the widely perceived widening soft skills gap? Mostly they say, “That’s so true about my friends and me!” or else “Seriously?!” and then, either way, “So what?!”

To that, I usually respond, “Well, it drives the grown-ups crazy, and it’s holding you back. If you were to radically improve on these soft skills, it would give you a huge strategic advantage in your career.” The good news is that this is almost always enough explanation to capture their attention and interest in improving.

The soft skills gap is not a household term like the technical skill gap, but it should be because its impact is monumental. Like the technical skill gap, the soft skills gap in the workforce has been developing slowly for decades. But the soft skills gap runs across the entire workforce—among workers with technical skills that are in great demand, every bit as much as workers without technical skills. What is more, the soft skills gap has gotten much worse in recent years.

Soft skills may be harder to define and measure than hard skills, but they are just as critical.

When employees have significant gaps in their soft skills, there are significant negative consequences: Potentially good hires are overlooked. Good hires go bad. Bad hires go worse. Misunderstandings abound. People get distracted. Productivity goes down. Mistakes are made. Customer service suffers. Workplace conflicts occur more frequently. Good people leave when they might have otherwise stayed longer.

What’s a manager to do?

What do business leaders and managers say when I tell them how they can lead their new young talent through the growing soft skills gap? Often, the first response is something like this response from a longtime partner in a large accounting/consulting firm: “This should NOT be our problem to solve! Shouldn’t they have already learned all these old-fashioned basics from their parents? Or in kindergarten? Or at least in high school or college? Or graduate school, for that matter? Certainly, by the time they come to work as an associate at this firm, they should know how to get themselves to work on time and behave properly. Am I supposed to teach them how to cross the street, too?”

Here’s what I tell my clients: If you employ young people nowadays, then the soft skills gap is your problem. That’s the bad news. So here’s some good news: You can bridge the soft skills gap and doing so will give you a huge strategic advantage when it comes to hiring the best young talent, getting them on board and up to speed faster, and fostering better performance management, improved relationships, and greater retention rates among the best young talent.

Here’s the bad news: Setting a good example or simply telling young workers they need to improve isn’t enough. Nor is scolding them or pointing out their failings in an annual review.

Here’s the good news: You can teach the missing basics to today’s young talent.

Now, based on more than 20 years of research and intensive work with young employees in organizations of all shapes and sizes, I’ve put our best research on the subject and our best practices into my newest book, “Bridging the Soft Skills Gap.” In the book, I’ve tried to lay out concrete solutions to help managers teach the missing basics of professionalism, critical thinking, and followership—complete with 92 step-by-step lesson plans designed to be highly flexible and easy to use.

Our research and proven approach has shown that the key to teaching young people the missing soft skills lies in breaking down the critical soft skills into their component parts and concentrating on one small component at a time, with the help of a teaching-style manager. Almost all of the exercises can be done in less than an hour within a team meeting or an extended one-on-one. The exercises are easily modified and customized and can be used in many different ways:

  • As “take-home” exercises to any individual or group
  • To guide one-on-one discussions with direct-reports
  • In the classroom as written exercises or as group discussions

Of course, my aim is that managers—and their young employees—will find themselves returning to their favorite exercises over and over again. One exercise at a time, managers can help their new young employees build up the most important soft skills. These critical soft skills can make the difference between mediocre and good; between good and great; between great and “one of a kind.”

For years, I’ve used the military as my “ace in the hole” when making the business case that organizations can and should invest in bridging the soft skills gap. I typically point to the Marines’ Boot Camp, for example, and say, “The Marines can take an ordinary young person and turn him or her into a United States Marine in just 13 weeks, and together, these young Marines make up the most effective fighting force in the history of the world.” Or course, most organizations don’t have the resources (or the inclination) to run the equivalent of their own Boot Camp. (Some do, by the way, and it works like a charm. But those organizations are few and far between.)

The really good news is that you don’t have to put your young employees through the equivalent of a Boot Camp in order to have a huge impact on their soft skills. In fact, we’ve collected hundreds of case studies of organizations and individual managers who have systematically helped their new young employees radically improve their soft skills. There are many, many ways you can help them build up one soft skill at a time and make them better employees, coworkers, and future leaders.

Excerpt from “Bridging the Skills Gap: Teaching the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent” by Bruce Tulgan (Wiley, September 2015). For more information, visit

Based in New Haven, CT, Bruce Tulgan is a leading expert on young people in the workplace. He is an advisor to business leaders all over the world, the author or coauthor of numerous books, including the classic, “Managing Generation X” (1995); best-seller “It’s Okay to Be the Boss” (2007); “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy’ (2009); “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014); and Bridging the Skills Gap (2015). Since founding management training firm RainmakerThinking in 1993, he has been a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. Follow him on twitter @brucetulgan. He can be reached at


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