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Leaders want strategic and critical thinking more than anything.

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“A severe lack of critical business skills is preventing growth at America’s largest companies.” 

That’s a major—potentially alarming—takeaway from a survey of over 1,000 corporate professionals, conducted by online learning platform Springboard for their new report, “The State of the Workforce Skills Gap,” released this morning.

Across industries, the majority of leaders surveyed for the report said “strategic/critical thinking” is the most sorely needed soft skill at companies today. (Problem-solving and decision-making came in second, while communication, both written and verbal, nabbed third.) 

“With the global business environment in a state of flux for the foreseeable future, companies that can strategically evolve will have an edge,” Springboard researchers explained in the report. “Leaders see this opportunity, and recognize that critical thinking and problem-solving skills are essential to operate with this mindset.”

The problem? Many workers aren’t quite there yet. In fact, 54% of junior employees told Springboard they’re trying to further cultivate their leadership and management skills; a similar share want to improve their communication chops. Nearly 40% of leaders say the gap between the skills they need at their organization and the skills they have is only getting deeper. 

Unsurprisingly, the rapid acceleration of AI—and the even more rapid integration of AI into business—has put a premium on the kinds of soft, interpersonal skills that no robot can quite automate yet. 

The report was admittedly self-serving for Springboard, whose mission—per CEO Gautam Tambay—is to bridge the world’s skills gap. “The more we understand the gap, the better we’re able to execute against it,” Tambay tells Fortune. What struck him most in speaking with leaders is how focused they are “not just on what I’d call technical or perishable skills like AI or machine learning, but on what I’d call durable or non-perishable skills.” Very often, those are soft skills.

A growing challenge

The skills gap has been a growing challenge, calling for ample training and reskilling. Per a World Economic Forum report from 2023, nearly half (44%) of an individual worker’s skills need to be updated. “The long-term trend is pretty undeniable that the demand for skills outpaces the supply of skills,” Dan Shapero, chief operating officer of LinkedIn, told Fortune last year. The problems remain the same: that WEF report found that the number-one most sought-after skill was creative thinking, followed by analytical thinking and technological literacy. 

Skills like critical thinking, which employers expressed a clear need for, aren’t new. They’ve been top of mind forever, Tambay says, “but despite that, leaders really see a massive gap in this area.” 

But don’t blame AI. The farther automation advances, the more uniquely human traits and attributes will be valued.  “I’ve always believed—and the report validates—that AI is not going to take your job,” Tambay says. Rather, “someone who knows how to use AI better than you is going to take your job.” 

Indeed, Tambay says much of today’s hand-wringing over out-of-control machine advancement is overblown. “It’s not the first time a massive wave of tech has come through and scared everyone,” he says. “Yes, it will change everything and people who can use it more effectively will be more successful. That’s what happened with the Industrial Revolution, too.”

But as always, companies need human beings to think strategically and make decisions. “AI will assist with that, but we still need humans to provide a layer of judgment on top.”

Even the most tech-forward leaders agree with that. Apple CEO Tim Cook has long lauded soft skills, which go hand in hand with creative and strategic thinking. In 2022, he said he seeks out the ability to collaborate, creativity, and curiosity in new hires above all else. “Those are the things that we look for in people, and it’s been a very good formula for us,” he said. “We look for people that think differently, that can look at a problem and not be caught up in the dogma of how that problem has always been viewed.”

Luckily, soft skills like communication, strategy, and judgment can be taught, he says, but they’re often harder to get down pat than technical skills. They need many more hours of boots-on-the-ground practice. “Understanding other human beings and their motivations, intentions, and what drives them—that’s absolutely learnable,” he says. Plus, they’re durable.

“Every business starts with understanding human emotion,” Tambay goes on. “Until businesses are no longer serving human needs, humans will have to be good at soft skills. Especially because today’s average 25-year-old is going to have a job in 20 years that doesn’t even exist yet because the shelf life of skills has gone down so much. You need a durable skill set that will help you to succeed for your whole career.”

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