Hard vs soft skills: which are more important in residential care work?
Not everyone is suited to being a therapeutic residential worker. Working in therapeutic care requires special skills and qualities, some that can be taught or mentored, and others that are part of the individual worker’s personality.
Whether you are a residential worker or you are looking to recruit therapeutic residential workers, it’s important to understand what skills are needed to provide the high-quality care that the children and young people who have experienced trauma and abuse need.
This blog discusses hard and soft skills, and which one comes first in both the recruitment and work of therapeutic residential workers.
Graphic of the brain showing left and right hemispheres. Hard skills such as knowledge and skills are in the left brain, soft skills such as communication and creativity are in the right brain.
What are hard skills?
Hard skills are specific competencies, skills, knowledge, and abilities needed to perform a specific task or role. They can be learned through education and professional development. Usually, they are technical (but not always) and easily measurable (Andreev, 2023).
Hard skills can be broken down into competencies, clearly articulated and assessed through the demonstration/completion of said tasks. They can also be demonstrated through educational certificates or practical demonstrations in the field.
What are soft skills?
Soft skills are personality traits, social competencies and skills, knowledge, and abilities used to perform interpersonal activities and unique tasks. Sometimes they are also called human skills. Usually, they are more closely linked to people’s personality traits they are born with and social skills. But they also can be trained and developed through practice and professional development (Andreev, 2023). Soft skills describe qualities such as the ability to motivate others and work in a team, character traits that make someone the individual person they are, and for that reason, may be hard to verify. Soft skills can be sorted into three categories: personal, social, and methodical skills (IONOS, 2023). No list of soft skills can really be complete, as we know there are many human traits that are often difficult to conceptualise.
A Canadian literature review of research into soft skills by Cukier et al. (2015) noted that there seems to be a lack of consistency in how essential soft skills are identified. While some studies included skills such as writing, oral communication, presentation, listening, critical thinking, analytics, interpersonal skills, priority and goal-setting, and lifelong learning; others included leadership, problem-solving, information management and entrepreneurship (Cukier et al., 2015, p. 6).
Cukier, et al.’s literature review also found less attention had been given to identifying the need for soft skills in social sciences and humanities, due to the possible problem of thinking that graduates from these courses already possessed soft skills. They expressed concern that many students may be disadvantaged in regard to accessing the required support and training and emphasised a diversity lens was critical to ensure there are no cultural biases.
How do we get the balance right in recruitment?
When is the right time to better understand the soft skills of the worker being interviewed? Even though many agencies use a variety of recruitment and interviewing strategies, we often don’t identify them until after candidates have been interviewed and/or employed (IONOS, 2023).
The qualification description of the nationally accredited Certificate IV in Child, Youth & Family Intervention describes the work: “Workers operate under a broad supervision framework and within clearly defined organisational guidelines, service plans and position specification.” (training.gov.au, 2023)
Corney and Broadbent (2007), reviewing the competency-based national youth work training package expressed concerns regarding the “privatisation and employer domination” and subsequent multi-vocational skilling for the youth work industries.
This raises the question: how can relational and trust-based work with young people be achieved if qualifications only measure hard skill competency?
Industry job descriptions
Most job descriptions for the therapeutic care work industry state similar tasks or key responsibilities which involve a grey mix of hard and soft skills with very little separation possible.
Following the specific position role and responsibilities there are usually person-specific identifiers for the role, all of which are soft skills. These usually cover:
- Capacity to work in a team with a range of stakeholders
- Ability to build trusting, safe and nurturing relationships with young people and all the soft skills required
- Creativity and artistry
- Ability to adapt to change
- Ability to work without judgement
- Courage and ‘stickability’
- Sense of humour
Bristow, in her 2019 research into what makes a good residential worker, focuses on understanding the kinds of knowledge exceptional workers bring with them to the residential care industry. Bristow identifies “four assemblages of knowledge” – of which only 20% are considered hard skills. Three of these four assemblages of knowledge that residential workers bring to their roles focus on their life journey and experiential learning to varying degrees.
The four assemblages of knowledge
- (25%) Historical/developmental life stages and impacts; drawing from attachment, resilience, self-efficacy, mastery, strong integrated values, ethics, integrated social justice principles and characteristics, including identified bioecological contexts of experiential or lived experience.
- (20%) Formal education and training; formal education / training / qualification in a subject or skill learnt and developed through structured modules, courses, and programs.
- (25%) Social learning; collegiate learning, mentoring, communities of practice; informal discussions and being clear about the boundaries of the personal, professional, and private selves.
- (30%) Confirming the existence and essential roles of ‘artistry’; spirituality, essence, gut feelings and intuition.
Considering that only 20% of this knowledge is in hard skills, this highlights the need to both identify and utilise hard and soft skills in the recruitment and selection of residential care workers.
What do children and young people tell us?
A qualitative Australian study (Moore et al., 2018) asked children and young people for their views on the characteristics of residential workers that helped them to feel safe in a residential placement. They identified competent and trustworthy staff as essential. Children and young people wanted residential care workers to be caring, proactive, tenacious in building relationships, and available – all soft skills. They valued residential carers who listened and ensured young people had a voice. The authors concluded that their results affirmed the central role of the worker-client alliance in ensuring residential care is a positive and safe experience for children and young people.
Therapeutic residential staff need to have the necessary knowledge and hard skills to meet the needs of all children and young people in residential care. However, they also need soft interpersonal skills and understanding in order to build strong respectful and trust-based relationships with children and young people, many of whom will have experienced trauma and may have highly complex needs.
Sifting for the necessary characteristics and motivations requires a deep understanding of what is required in a person to be an effective therapeutic residential care worker. Application forms and one-off interviews are too limited for this.
The post-interview period of induction and probation also form an essential part of the selection process. In practice, working in the setting provides the real test (the demonstration of the soft skills in action) of whether or not someone was suitable for the job. Therefore, the total period of recruitment, from initial advertisement to final approval as a permanent member of staff, could realistically take a year or more. As one residential care manager said:
“I’m sure all of us have worked with people who … are highly qualified but are about as much use as a chocolate ash tray… you can have all the qualifications in the world, you can have them coming out of your ears, but put them into…a human situation with children and young people and they’re absolutely, utterly, useless.”
Finding the balance!
We must have balance. We tend to believe it will be having all the technical skills for the job which will lead to success. However, in the real world of therapeutic residential care, we must integrate the hard skills with the soft skills for children and young people to truly benefit from the care we provide.
Andreev, I. (2023). Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills: List of Skills with Examples. https://www.valamis.com/hub/hard-skills-vs-soft-skills
Bristow, G. (2019). What are the characteristics (types of knowledge) residential workers with high-risk young people bring to the field of residential work? “Identifying artistry in youth residential workers: fact or fiction?” [Doctoral research, Victoria University
Corney, T. & Broadbent, R. (2007). Youth work training package review: More of the same or radical rationalisation? Youth Studies Australia, 26(3), 36–43.
Cukier, W., Hodson, J., & Omar, A. (2015). Soft skills are hard – a review of the literature. Diversity Institute, University of Ryerson. Toronto.
Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. University of Minnesota Press.
IONOS, (2023). Soft skills | Definition and examples. https://www.ionos.com/startupguide/productivity/soft-skills/
Moore, T., McArthur, M., Death, J., Tilbury, C., & Roche, S. (2018). Sticking with us through it all: The importance of trustworthy relationships for children and young people in residential care. Children and Youth Services Review, 84, 68-75. Interviews with 27 children in residential care in Australia.
training.gov.au, (2023). CHC40321 – Certificate IV in Child, Youth and Family Intervention. https://training.gov.au/Training/Details/CHC40321