Being personable, being part of a team and being able to build relationships are traits that are increasingly coveted in the workplace.

David Deming, associate professor of economics at Harvard University and author of the paper ‘The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market’ argues the case in a compelling article on FiveThirtyEight. It’s not that technical skills and cognitive ability aren’t important; it’s just that people skills are now seen as even more desirable for those who want to get ahead. “Social skills increasingly are a complement to cognitive skills,” says Deming.

The stats tell the same story. We’ve heard it in different ways, at different times, but all of the pieces of the puzzle come together here:

  • Within 20 years, nearly half of US jobs will be vulnerable to automation. We’re already seeing the signs of technology creep, with employees being replaced by computers in banks, airports, and supermarkets. It seemed to happen overnight, and it’s just the beginning. But one thing computers aren’t good at, notes Deming, is simulating human interaction. So in some ways, we still have the upper hand.
  • ‘Routine’ jobs, such as manufacturing work, have declined sharply in the US over the past few decades. In 1970, more than one quarter of US employees worked in the manufacturing sector, but by 2010 only one in ten did. This decline is happening around the world.
  •  We’ve also seen an increase in service sector jobs (eg fast-food workers), as well as non-routine analytical jobs (eg computer programmers). There’s been a slowdown in high-wage, technical jobs, while jobs that require both cognitive and interpersonal skills (eg doctors and lawyers), have grown.

What this all adds up to is that employment growth is focused around jobs that require not only cognitive skills, but interpersonal skills. The take-out for us is that the workforce is changing, whether we like it or not. We often hear terms such as ‘communicating, listening, cooperating, negotiating, problem-solving, and resolving conflict’ bandied-around in the workplace. But it’s not just knowing what these skills are, but demonstrating them, consistently and effectively.

After all, while most of us work with computers, we don’t actually want to work with computers. We want to work with people who we can have a laugh with, who we can solve problems with, who we can rely on to get stuck in when we’re on deadline, or with whom we can have an impassioned discussion. Working with computers might make things more efficient and effective, but it’s the people who make work fun.

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Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts is founder of Red Rose Consulting; business leader and educator; author and speaker; adviser on marketing, creative thinking and leadership.


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