Certain skills in a job description are very easy to teach and measure, often in well defined curriculums with established right and wrong answers. For example, take computer programming. Given the opportunity, you can either create working computer code or stare at the screen befuddled. The same with mathematics and engineering. The math is either correct or it isn’t. These skills are frequently referred to as the hard skills and included as a laundry list on a job description.
We’re going to talk about hard skills in this article, so you can be sure to “check the boxes” that a HR screener or hiring manager may have for the job. But more importantly, we’re going to talk about how you can go beyond the typical “bullet list” to stand out from your peers and ace your job search.
What Are Hard Skills?
What are some examples of hard skills for a resume? I’ll start with an example. Most IT resumes have something that look like this, a long bulleted list of specific technologies and programming languages:
- Responsive Design
- Google Analytics
For those not in technology, these are the basic skills required to build any commercial webpage. These are decent hard skills for resume buffing. They are worth adding as a resume skills section (the header should be something like “computer skills” or “technical skills” ) if you’re applying for a technical role.
This type of resume skill can be easily taught (for example, this site on R programming) and easily tested during the course of the interview with a couple of questions or some time at a whiteboard. Speaking more generally, if I can give you a test and you can prove you know the skill with a couple of answers, the skill is probably a hard skill. Math is either right – or wrong. Computers work – or they don’t. You either know the law – or we’re going to get in serious trouble. Pass / Fail. Along the same lines, if you can show me a credential that credibly certifies you know these skills, they are probably hard skills.
More importantly, you can also make the argument that it is impossible to actually do the work without some proficiency and work experience in these skills, so a candidate that lacks them will be at a significant disadvantage. Or had better learn them mighty quickly after being hired.
On the other hand, we have soft skills, which are often harder to judge. The “correct” answer to a soft skills question often reflects the situation where you are using the skill and the interviewer’s own beliefs. For example: “You should be tough and withhold information from someone you’re negotiating with! True or False?” doesn’t have a clear answer. At best, you’re catering to someone’s opinion and the “right” answer will vary based on the situation. Hardball negotiating tactics are culturally appropriate for certain settings but can do impressive damage to relationships in others. There is no right answer, this is basically a culture fit question. Time management and attention to detail are things that can’t be learned, and are hard to sell when applying for a job.
Here are some important soft skill ideas:
- Interpersonal skill
- professional skills
- emotional intelligence
- communication skill
- marketing skills
- leadership skill
- critical thinking
- problem solving skills
Analytical skills straddles the two types of job skills. On one hand, it is difficult for a prospective employer or recruiter to test job seekers for overall analytical ability. Individual problem solving skills such as math can be easily tested by a potential employer.
The Big Problem With Hard Skills
Ah, you learned to code – in Python, no less! And you earned a certified Fraud Examiner certification. Fantastic. That list of bullets is certainly growing!
Unfortunately, your list of bulleted skills now looks… exactly like every other candidate. All of you are going to the same schools, the same coding camps, the same entry level jobs that teach you an extremely similar set of skills. Which are easily faked, for that matter, just by listing a technology. So, how are we figure out who to interview?
You need to come up with a strategy to stand out.
Winning Strategies To Get Hired For Hard Skills
I’ve worked in computers and statistical analysis for the past twenty years, which is the ultimate playground for hard skills. Every job interview comes down to a discussion at the white board, showing that you’ve got the ability to solve their problem. Making things a bit more challenging, I have to compete with people who attended graduate school – listing Master’s degrees or Phd’s on their resume. On paper, they actually look more impressive than me! So how can you compete with that?
Simple. It’s like the old joke – how do you beat Bobbie Fischer? Answer: Play Him in Any Game Except Chess. Competitive strategy for job hunters works very much the same way. Step away from the hard skills and play a broader game.
Here are several ways to put this into practice. Imagine that we’re are applying for a computer or engineering position (with lots of job specific skills employers are looking for). Most of the people we will be competing with are also engineers – at best, we’re going to be even with them. Everyone lists a bunch of skills on their job application, maybe a Github repo or two. So what can we talk about that might set us apart? Here are some winning strategies to set yourself apart for a hard skills focused job:
- Strategy 1 – Rare And Unique Combinations:: Certain jobs are just… unique. We need a statistics expert who knows about American-style retail credit card fraud tactics and is semi-fluent in French. Oh, and must be a Six Sigma Black Belt. There just aren’t a lot of people who meet that job specification. The same can occur when the hiring manager is insistent on hiring people from a specific industry (or even company. I credit at least half of one decision to having worked at GE). If you suspect that you’re part of a very small pool of qualified talent for a particular role, be sure to call that out in your “candidate overview” section as “specializes in *specific area*”. The narrower the better. “Specializies in web design” tells me nothing. “Specializes in helping wholesale distributors redesign their sales commission plan without investing in new IT systems” is a tiny pool of qualified candidates, most of whom are unlikely to change jobs. You would get attention…
- Strategy 2 – I Haz People Skills, Dang It:: If you managed staff or managed a large / sensitive relationship, you can use those project management skills to help set you apart from other “skills-only” competitors. Managers, particularly business leaders, often give prestige to technical staff who have managed people, handled large teams, or have dealt with tricky issues. These candidates are deemed to have strong communication skills in addition to their problem solving and technical skills. So the developer who was asked to work directly with a major customer or supplier to get a project set up should mention the responsibility. Having to integrate your work with a large cross-functional team would set you ahead of candidates who tended to work alone. This type of positioning works best in large, slightly bureaucratic, companies. Social media skills, a bit of a flip side to that, are becoming increasingly more important in the technology and marketing fields.
- Strategy 3 – Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, And Despair:: So if you spent most of your time sitting in a corner, quietly focusing on getting work done…. this is your chance to shine. Tell them what they’ve won, Bob! Did you ship a product? Make the scheduling system run better? Make millions by hacking Facebook’s super secret marketing algorithm? Be sure to mention this in your accomplishment bullets or experience section for the jobs in question. “Used hard skills to save $2MM” – Trust me, they’ll sit up and pay attention to that one! Even small numbers can count here.
- Strategy 4 – Showcase Impressive Awards:: Did you get any award for performing your skills? Then you can attribute at least part of the award to the quality / impact of your hard skills contributions. This is a great way to call out your accomplishments for projects that are difficult to measure. Many people “implemented a new computer system” – that doesn’t really tell me much about how well you did it. Earning a CEO award in the process, however, tends to settle that question. Clearly you’re rather good at exercising that particular skill.
- Strategy 5 – Use The Prestige of Teaching:: Ah, the role of a teacher. We’re socially conditioned to respect our teachers, trainers, and public speakers, making the assumption that they have a much deeper understanding of the topic than anyone else available. Lets politely ignore the fact that more than a few speaking and teaching engagements are attempts to fill an empty podium with the nearest semi-articulate simian in a suit who can deliver some prepared remarks with supporting slides. So given a choice between two candidates, the one whom has taught a class in the subject or facilitated a major industry event has a natural advantage in terms of perceived credibility.
- Strategy 6 – Quiet Dedication to The Craft:: As an alternative to leading big projects or public speaking, you can demonstrate quiet focus and drive towards mastery across multiple different jobs. So if you’ve held a couple of different positions over the past few years, be sure to mention how you used *that specific skill* in that role. Better yet, mention it in your summary as well as the skills section, and comment on the diversity of your experience, especially if you used the skill in multiple different technical or business environments. For example, imagine you’ve been a pricing manager four different times at four different companies, always at around the same job level. You can position this as building depth in the skill, through multiple assignments, as well as broadening your exposure to different business environments and industries. For example, you may have started at a distributor during a recession – which requires a specific set of tactics – and then continued on with them once things got better (more different tactics). After that, you jumped over to the supplier side and priced the same project, just as a manufacturer. And so forth. In your summary, you would use that to demonstrate you offer a breadth of experience in that skill most candidates lack. You get credibility from a) consistently coming back to that skill and b) broadening your range of experience over time.
As you can see, there are a number of ways to position yourself as a unique candidate. Some work for introverts, others are suited for management. Some require flashy “big ticket” accomplishments, others can be done by anyone with a little hustle. Some even work for folks who prefer to work quietly on their own. There’s something for everyone here. What’s most important is that you find a story to weave all of these hard skills together into a consistent theme to put on your resume.
Be cautious about quickly jumping on courses and certifications. While you may get a warm and fuzzy feeling about that LinkedIn learning course, HR professionals may not give it the same weight as real world experience. If you’re going to invest in training, make sure it is for the right skill set, is an important skill for that career, and the training course will be taken seriously by a potential employer. It’s nice to have a resume builder or two, but make sure you’re focused on relevant skill choices that HR professionals value.
Focus is Key
Once you’ve found the “theme” (see above) in which to present the hard skills on your resume, you should carefully prune your list of hard skills to keep the reader focused on your messages. Having too many hard skills can easily work against you. This is particularly common on IT resumes: a typical mid-career IT professional can easily fill half a page or more with systems, tools, and languages they have worked with. The reader is left bewildered. You are better off sharing only the skills which are relevant to the job and/or support the unique theme you’re using to sell your hard skills as a candidate.
Remain focused. Pick a resume format or resume template with a small skills section and list skills within the available space. Edit ruthlessly. Unless it is listed in the job ad, consider dropping it. The applicant tracking system may not respond to it. This also applies to an executive resume; keep it high level and focus on key skill areas. While you may have plenty of transferable skills and experience in your personal skills inventory, list skills that are the most relevant.
Still in love with all your skills and experience? No worries, you can summarize. Lead off by focusing on the hard skills that are most relevant to the job and close with a summary that groups the balance of your technical experience into a single high level statement. For example: Three years of web development and twenty years of broader development experience.
But wait, you’ve got experience in multiple areas? No worries, we can extend the bullet to mention those. Something like this. For example: Three years of web development on manufacturing e-commerce sites and twenty years of broader development experience, supporting production management, inventory tracking, data analysis, and general ledger systems for medium-sized manufacturers. Perfect – if you’re applying for an e-commerce job with a manufacturer, I’d be silly not to speak with you. And we’ve skipped listing about thirty obsolete technologies that may not even be installed at that particular customer…
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