How to Differentiate between Hard Skills, Soft Skills and Essential skills


The first step in career self-assessment is to identify your skills. By definition, a skill is something that you have learned through work experience, education, training or volunteer activities. When employers consider a candidate for a position, they assess whether a candidate’s skills match those required for the position.  Knowing your skills is crucial in pursuing and securing the right job.   

Career skills generally fall into two categories: hard and soft. The former involve specific knowledge and abilities, such as technical proficiencies and data analysis. The latter focus on emotional intelligence and behaviour, such as communication and problem-solving. 

There is some debate about whether hard skills or soft skills are more valuable to one’s career development but a recent study indicates that they are equally important.  CareerBuilder, a global leader in human capital solutions, conducted a comprehensive study that spanned industries and company sizes and included more than 2,000 human resources professionals. The results indicate that a vast majority of employers (77 per cent of those surveyed) believe that soft skills are just as important as hard skills.  

“When companies are assessing job candidates, they’re looking for the best of both worlds: someone who is not only proficient in a particular function, but also has the right personality,” said Rosemary Haefner, Vice President of Human Resources at CareerBuilder. “Along with responsibilities, it’s important to highlight soft skills that can give employers an idea of how quickly you can adapt and solve problems, whether you can be relied on to follow through and how effectively you can lead and motivate others.” 

“Employers are looking for the best of both worlds: someone who is not only proficient in a particular function, but also has the right personality.” 

 Hard, soft and essential 

Here’s a brief overview of the various skill types and how to tell the difference between hard skills, soft skills and essential skills. It’s not as “hard” as you may think. 

Hard skills are quantifiable, tangible skills that include technical skills. Hard skill abilities include: conducting research on the internet, using a specific computer application and operating a specific piece of machinery or equipment.  For instance, a nurse or a doctor will have hard skills in the use of medical equipment.  

Soft skills are unquantifiable, intangible skills that are also known as “people skills.” Some examples of soft skills include: having a positive attitude, communicating well, creative thinking, team work and solving problems.  

The combination of hard skills and soft skills form an overall set of essential skills that relate to securing and maintaining employment. 

Essential skills required for employment in a specific occupation or profession is determined through analysis of the tasks that people in that occupation or profession complete on a daily basis. The essential skills required for those tasks also depend on the degree of complexity. 


To help define essential skills needed for work, the Government of Canada developed The Literacy and Essential Skills Checklist. As part of this essential skills system, various skills are rated in terms of complexity from a Level 1 (Basic) to a Level 5 (Advanced). 

The areas of skills assessment include: 

  • Reading 

  • Writing 

  • Document use 

  • Numeracy 

  • Computer use / digital skills 

  • Thinking 

  • Oral communication 

  • Working with others 

  • Continuous learning 



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