According to a recent Deloitte Access Economics report, two in three jobs will rely on soft skills by 2030, as automation and artificial intelligence take on tasks currently done by humans. What exactly do we mean by ‘soft skills’ and how important are they in the hospitality industry? Donald Gasper talks with trainers in Hong Kong and Macau to find out.

The term “soft skills” is often used to describe the skills which characterise relationships with other people and how you approach your life and your work. Often called “people skills” or “interpersonal skills”, elements of soft skills include communication skills (now seen as vital for all professions), decision making skills, self-motivation, leadership and team-building skills, problem-solving and time management skills. While this is by no means an exhaustive list of what is meant by soft skills, it does provide an overall view of the competencies and capabilities expected when we are discussing non-technical skills.

Dr. Cindia Lam
Dr. Cindia Lam

“Soft skills always refer to the interpersonal skills and characters of an employee,” says Dr. Cindia Lam, coordinator for Evening Degree Programmes at the Institute for Tourism Studies in Macau. “These actually embrace extensive social and communication skills in teamwork, critical thinking, problem-solving, effective use of resources, making ethical decisions and considerations on stakeholders instead of shareholders.”

Soft skills are taking more weight in recent years because of the prosperity of the world economy and advances in technology, she says. These have brought better education opportunities, exposure to increasing knowledge and understanding of good practices. Moreover, customers are now looking for quality of life rather than a mere standard of living. This leads to the rise of the service industry, which in turn further contributes to the need for soft skills.

Soft skills in the hospitality industry

According to the Department of Tourism, Leisure, Hotel and Sport Management at Australia’s Griffith University in 2015, “The hospitality workplace demands skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, maintaining professional and ethical standards and leadership”.

The 2013 Employer Skills Survey conducted by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills found that, “Four of the top five skills hospitality applicants are lacking are soft skills”. The survey went on to explain that “122,000 workers in retail and food services in the UK will be held back by a lack of soft skills”.

It found 55 per cent of those surveyed lacked customer handling skills, 53 per cent lacked organisation skills, 51 per cent lacked oral communication skills and 44 per cent lacked teamwork skills.

Alan Ip
Alan Ip

Alan Ip, deputy manager for hotel operations and training at the Hotel and Tourism Institute of the Vocational Training Institute in Hong Kong, says hospitality requires a unique mix of skills. Not only are staff expected to know physical hard skills, but they are also expected to perfect soft skills, which are a lot more difficult to teach in a traditional classroom. Hospitality is a labour-intensive industry, he says, yet there is a shortage in manpower and an increasing trend of applying technology and having AI to take up some of the routines.

“In certain circumstances, a human touch with the guests is still essential, especially for hotels which strive to go the extra mile to provide a better hotel experience for their customers. As a result, we are now focusing more in our training on problem solving and other soft skills that are irreplaceable by robots or machines.”

Problem solving

Ip says that design thinking is an element being placed in his institute’s different training programmes, targeting the problem-specific needs of guests and exploring different solutions to deal with the situation. “We train our students more on effective problem-solving skills, as well, to anticipate the trend and how to provide better services by creating new experiences,” Ip continues. “In my opinion, problem solving, creativity, on top of good communication skills, empathy and proper work ethic are the core soft values that are precious to new generation hoteliers. Of course, basic skills for hoteliers are important still yet soft skills are also getting more important in our training as the world changes too fast that we better equip our students better for the unforeseeable changes that we may encounter in the upcoming decades.”

For her part, Lam says that education in hard skills is practical in nature, when students are taught how to perform and function, like setting up a website, working out a set of financial statements. The rules and steps of procedures are normally well defined and set, with limited ground or necessity for doubts or argument. On the other hand, education in soft skills involves enriching or changing the underlying attributes and personality traits of students, the knowledge has to be taught with a strong and convincing background that can provide rich information but with sufficient flexibility for students to absorb, digest and accept.