The No. 1 skill companies are hiring for is also the hardest to find, according to new research

 Checking off all the requirements in a job description isn’t enough to land a new role right now — your potential new boss wants to see that you’re disciplined, reliable and care about your work. 

“A strong work ethic” is the top skill companies are looking for in new hires, but is one of the hardest to find, according to new research from ADP

As part of its research, ADP surveyed more than 1,500 business owners, senior leaders and hiring managers about their hiring plans and priorities in 2024.

ADP asked small, mid-size and large businesses what skills they’re prioritizing the most among new hires. Even as conversations about the importance of technical upskilling reach a fever pitch, soft skills emerged as the clear winner.

“A strong work ethic” is a nebulous term. But people who embody it are typically punctual, organized, efficient with their time and, most importantly, willing to go the extra mile to get the job done well, per ADP’s research. 

Other soft skills employers want include problem-solving, time management and communication. 

The managers ADP surveyed said these in-demand skills are some of the hardest to source in candidates, noting that a strong work ethic and time management are particularly scarce.

If a new hire possesses these skills, “their potential and opportunities are limitless,” Tina Wang, division vice president of HR at ADP, tells CNBC Make It. “You can teach specific technical skills needed for a job, but if a new hire comes in on day one with some of these behavioral skills, teaching those technical skills becomes much easier, effective and more fruitful.”

Companies see upskilling as an antidote to the ‘great resignation’

Upskilling and reskilling, or teaching employees new skills to transition into a different job or expand their current responsibilities, have become “huge priorities” for businesses in the past year, Wang notes. 

Businesses started prioritizing skills training in the wake of the “great resignation” when millions of people quit their jobs, leaving employers scrambling for talent, she explains.

Other hiring experts agree. “Coming out of the hiring surge companies experienced after 2020 and being fearful of losing workers in the ‘great resignation’ of 2021, hiring mistakes were made,” says Bert Bean, CEO of the staffing firm Insight Global. “Focusing on good old-fashioned hard work as a starting point is the best place to start resetting an employee base.” 

Building a deeper, stronger talent bench becomes “so much more scalable and frictionless” when you have employees who are effective problem-solvers and have a strong work ethic, which is why these soft skills are so in-demand, Wang adds. 

Some 85% of adults worldwide believe upskilling and reskilling will become the new standard for people throughout their careers, according to a new survey of more than 17,000 respondents across 17 countries conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of Educational Testing Service (ETS), a private testing and talent solutions organization.

As artificial intelligence integrates more into the workforce, soft skills, or people skills, are invaluable assets to professionals, the report notes. Other research shares the same sentiment: In February, LinkedIn declared communication as the most in-demand skill (hard and soft included) for 2024. 

How to use your soft skills to stand out in a job interview 

Highlighting your soft skills can give you a competitive edge in an interview.

“Communication and interpersonal skills can become readily apparent in the first 5-10 minutes of an interview,” says Wang. “Be yourself, have confidence in your life experiences, and those intangibles will become obvious for employers to connect the work they need to get done to what you bring to the table.”

To demonstrate a strong work ethic, Bean recommends finding time in the conversation to talk about the hardest job you’ve ever had, perhaps when the interviewer asks you what your strengths are or how you’ve handled a challenge at work.

“Paint the picture of what you had to do every day, and describe how after [the situation or job] was over, you knew you had a strong ethic,” says Bean. “Everyone has a grit story to tell. Find yours, practice it and tell it with a passion.” 

Bean underscores the importance of explaining your contributions in your last role and how they helped advance the company’s top or bottom line. Such examples can help illustrate your work ethic and help the hiring manager see that “they aren’t just hiring another individual contributor, but someone who understands the business and what drives value.” 

Even if you don’t have a lot of direct work experience to cite, Wang says you can reference real-world experiences where you’ve demonstrated a strong work ethic or problem-solving, whether it was a challenging group project at school or a busy shift at an after-school job.

“Ultimately, an interview is about ‘convincing,’” says Bean. “You will always have a good chance of convincing someone to make a decision — in this case, to hire you — if you can clearly articulate the value you bring to the business, are proud of your accomplishments, and show your alignment with the employer’s values.”

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