Why Social Skills are More Important in a Technology-Driven Workforce

You’ve heard the debate in HR circles, what’s more important analytical skills vs. social or emotional intelligence in the workforce?  Answers are hotly debated and can vary not only by industry and job type, but management’s demographics like age, gender and education level tend to also be a factor.  But, new research shows the increasing importance of social skills across all industries – because of  trending technology and automation and its impact on the jobs people fill.

Researchers at the Oxford Martin School, published a paper in 2013 that estimated 47% of all U.S. jobs were “at risk” of being computer automated over the next two decades – meaning they would no longer require humans at all.  But, research is divided on this, a Pew study revealed that 52% of experts do not agree that networked, automated, artificial intelligence (AI) applications or robotic devices will displace more jobs than they create by 2025, while 48% agree that they will.  Economists also tend to have an optimistic view on technology, reporting that technological advances take away some jobs and create others, but produce increased output overall – and ultimately more jobs.  While those jobs may be different jobs, most HR and economist experts agree there isn’t a decline in jobs overall.

Researchers are now finding that it is the type of jobs available to workers that is most impacted by technology.  A paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, “The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market,” reports that almost all job growth since 1980 is in occupations that rely heavily on social skills – because social skills are difficult to automate.

Drawing on research from MIT, University of Chicago, and the U.S. Department of Labor the paper’s author David Deming, associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education explains 3 factors in relation to the growing value of social skills in the workplace:

1.  Social Skills are valued in jobs across all wage distributions

2.   Social and Cognitive Skills complement each other

3.   Jobs that don’t require high level social skills are most likely routine jobs that are at high risk of automation.

Deming’s data shows that social skill jobs grew by 24% from 1980 to 2012, compared to about 11% for math-intensive jobs – and that the value of math-intensive tasks have declined since 2000, while the value of social skills has grown by about 2% in the same time period.  Overall, Deming’s research finds that jobs characterized by routine work have continued to decline.

So what exactly are these “social skills” researchers are referring to?  The ability to work well with others.  Driven by a need for flexibility in more team-driven work environments, workers need social skills to be able to adapt to coworkers strengths or weaknesses, and to changing job circumstances – which computers can’t do.

While the jury is still out over technology’s impact on job growth overall – what this research does point to is the importance of training and educating workers in the skills most important to the workplace today, and 20 years down the road, and those are the skills historically referred to as the “soft” skills – social, cognitive, and emotional intelligence.



  1. Scott on February 28, 2017 at 2:16 pm

    I agree that jobs that don’t require a high level of social skills are most likely going to be the jobs that can be done by a machine. I can understand why developing social skills might be hard for the current teen generation. A lot of their life revolves around sending messages to one another over Facebook or Snapchat. One thing that I think helped me develop these skills is joining a sports team. While you are at practice and playing in the games, you have to clearly communicate in order to succeed.