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The Importance of ‘Soft Skills’ in Your Social Work Career

By Ana M. Leon, Ph.D., LCSW | Interim Director, Professor

Social worker engaging with a group.

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In today’s society, it is important not just to be a competent social worker who can utilize specific skills to help diverse individuals, families and groups. Social workers have to also be good citizens in the workplace, on community teams and other situations where they interact with colleagues who have different personalities, philosophies and ideas.

Assuming these various roles requires application of all skills learned in the social work classroom and in social work internships where we first practice and apply all our skills. Employers want you to be competent in knowledge content, but also an important and productive member of the workplace team. Social work education teaches you how to assess clients and patients and how to provide the best forms of interventions that will help facilitate change in their lives.

But sometimes, we forget that there are others in our workplace we also need to effectively work with as we strive to reach common agency or organizational goals.

So, you have all this classroom knowledge in social work, and you are probably wondering what do employers really want from you when it is time to start your career in social work? Of course your graduate education has provided you with skills in assessment, developing goals, finding resources for clients, utilizing various theoretical models and clinical interventions; but what else do employers look for when you are being considered for a career in social work? And do you have those skills?

The good news is that those other skills are referred to in the employment world as “soft skills.” What you will learn from this article is that many of these soft skills are already built into the expectations for competent social work and you have more than likely acquired some of those skills in your formal social work education. However, because these soft skills, or sometimes they are called transferable skills, are such an inherent part of the skill set that social workers must have, we sometimes take those for granted and don’t always let prospective employers know that we have them.

So what are soft skills? What do they include? And most importantly, why would employers want you to have soft skills in your tool kit?

This article will begin with understanding the importance of soft skills in the job market today and move toward an overview of what we mean by soft skills. The article then presents some specific examples of soft skills and ends with several tips for you to consider as you get ready for a career in social work.

What are Soft Skills?

Soft skills or transferrable skills are those abilities or aptitudes that help us all indirectly perform our career-related tasks, regardless of the profession or job position you are in. They especially help us understand and interact well with those in the workplace. For example, empathy is a soft skill that social workers have already developed to help their clients and patients. But empathy, when applied to the workplace as evidenced in caring for your colleagues and going out of your way for your co-workers, is a soft skill that employers value. In essence, soft skills are the building blocks that allow us to scaffold other skills and help us with the specific job tasks we are expected to complete while becoming members of a work team.

Think of it this way: We learn very specific skills in social work that help us effectively deliver services that others need (listening, use of theory, application of interventions, etc.) and we support those clients and patients; however, we also need other skills to thrive in the workplace, to be recognized as valuable employees and good citizens in our society. Those are our soft skills. But nothing in life is rigidly set, so you will find that you will use soft skills in the workplace as well as in your direct practice as a social worker.

Soft skills valued by prospective employers include but are not limited to:

  • critical thinking
  • problem solving
  • collaboration/teamwork
  • verbal and written communication competency
  • ethical decision making
  • understanding diverse perspectives
  • developing empathy for others

In social work, these soft skills are important and inherent, because without these we would not be able to provide services to our clients, collaborate with peers in the workplace to provide the best services for our clients, Without these skills, we would not be happy, experience job satisfaction or be part of productive teams in the workplace where we spend a minimum of eight hours a day.

Let us Unpack a Few of Those Soft Skills

Remember when your parents and teachers throughout your academic career kept pushing some basic skills for life and none of us really could see the value of those skills? Well, employers are looking for team members with those skills. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but several important soft skills are briefly described.

Collaborative work implies that we must work well with others on team projects, but it means more than that. Good collaborative work requires patience, skills in engaging others and building consensus, while contributing a positive, motivated and energetic position as a team member. The operative words in collaborative work are “we” and “team.” There is no room for “I” because that does not recognize the contributions of others or the team.

How will you prepare to work collaboratively with others? Is there anything in your collaborative style that you need to improve upon? Can you begin to identify and list times that you worked in a successful collaboration with others and share those experiences with prospective employers?

Problem-solving skills are used in the process of finding solutions to difficult or complex issues. Employers value team members who demonstrate persistence and teamwork on solving a problem or situation or improving a process. To successfully implement problem-solving skills you also need other accompanying skills that may include patience, critical thinking, listening, reflective thinking, valuing different perspectives on problem solving, and appreciating the group thinking process.

Do you have problem-solving skills? What are your problem-solving skills? Can you identify examples of when you successfully used problem-solving skills with others?
By now you are probably noticing that while these skills are great as individual, stand-alone skills, soft skills do better when combined with other soft skills and other social work skills learned. That’s the scaffolding or building upon each one that was referenced above.

Everyone is different and comes to the workplace with a unique personality, unique experiences, fears, anxieties and skill sets. That is what makes life interesting. Can you imagine how boring life would be if we were all the same?

Interpersonal skills are those skills that allow you to work well with others, help you manage conflict on the job, solve difficult situations and help you communicate with others. Included in this set of skills are verbal and writing skills, the ability to not take things personally and maintain objectivity, the willingness to accept your own role and responsibility in a situation that isn’t going well, and the opportunity to utilize those social (be cooperative, stay positive, share with others) skills our kindergarten teachers taught us.

What are your best interpersonal skills? Which would you like to improve? Can you identify examples of times that you used interpersonal skills to address a workplace situation? Critical-thinking skills are used to objectively analyze, assess and evaluate an issue or situation to form a judgment. Employers love team members who can use critical thinking to develop solutions instead of having others present solutions to them. Keep in mind when you are in the workplace, if you bring a problem to your supervisor, also bring some potential solutions. Your employer will value that you took the time to analyze a situation and that your critical thinking allowed you to develop some potential solutions.

What is your critical thinking process like? Can you explain to a prospective employer how you combine critical thinking with problem solving to creatively address a challenge? Can you give examples in the workplace or an internship where you utilized critical thinking?

Ethical decision making is how to objectively analyze, assess and evaluate an issue or situation to form a judgment and make a decision that is congruent with the Social Work Code of Ethics. Employers value honest and ethical workers who utilize ethics in their decision making, especially when faced with complex problems or situations. We can and do make decisions every day, but what are those based on and what is the process you follow? How do you engage in ethical decision making? Do you have an example of how you use ethical decision making in your work with others?

The ability to discuss and understand diverse perspectives in the workplace will inevitably introduce you to different and sometime difficult personalities, co-workers from various walks of life, and colleagues with different work styles, goals and agendas. Your challenge is to not avoid co-workers because of their differences, but instead, because you will be part of a team, learn how to better understand the diverse perspectives and experiences your colleagues bring. Look for their strengths; we just need to take the time to value those.

How comfortable are you in discussing with others diverse perspectives on issues, situations, problems, etc.? How will you approach discussing a difference of opinion with your team partner? Can you describe an example when you took the time to better understand a co-worker’s position on something?

So what should you remember as you start thinking about starting your social work career and perhaps start contacting prospective employers? Here are some final tips:

  • Before you go on any interview, make a list of the skills you have—include all your skills. Put on the list the social work skills you have learned in the classroom and in your internship and on the list also include your soft skills.
  • Identify examples of when you have successfully utilized soft skills and do not be afraid to also share when you used soft skills that did not work as well as you intended. Prospective employers like to see that you have processed situations and you have lessons learned from your experiences—that shows growth.
  • Do not be afraid to role play an employment interview with peers, where you practice what you might say about your social work skills and your soft skills. Practicing this either with others or even in front of a mirror will help you become more comfortable when you must do the real interview. And it builds confidence.
  • Be authentic. If you do not have a lot of practice with any of these skills do not make it up—go with your strengths.
  • And it is never too late to start learning how to use soft skills. Find opportunities where you can use those in your courses or your internships.

Interested in gaining these skills and learning what it takes to be a social work professional? The University of Central Florida’s College of Health Professions and Sciences offers a fully Online Masters of Social Work. This program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and can be completed in as little as two (2) years. Visit the online MSW program page to explore how you can get started.

About the Author

Ana M. Leon, Ph.D., LCSW
Ana M. Leon, Ph.D., LCSW | Interim Director, Professor

Ana Leon is a Professor of Social Work and currently serves as the Interim Director of the School of Social Work at UCF. She is a nationally recognized expert on child mental health with an emphasis on the intersection between child mental health, trauma and the child welfare of very young children. Her research interests include child health and mental health issues, parenting interventions and children’s program evaluations.