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Career coach Peggy Klaus considers the term “soft skills” a misnomer. Something described as soft is not valued in a results-driven world, she says. Yet the absence of some of these skills breaks careers.

“You see it all the time. Employees too often don’t have the soft skills that they need to survive in a soft economy,” says Klaus, author of “The Hard Truth About Soft Skills: Workplace Lessons Smart People Wish They’d Learned Sooner,” (Collins Business, 2008).

It’s the soft skills, a cluster of particular personality traits, that allow employees to effectively use their “hard skills,” she adds. Soft skills can involve active listening, critical thinking, time management and conflict resolution.

Studies and surveys show that, indeed, soft skills may be in short supply. Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray &Christmas found that while only 5 percent of employers noted that recent college graduates lacked computer or technology skills, almost 50 percent reported that young workers lacked writing skills and 27 percent noted deficiencies in critical thinking.

Another survey, on behalf of Robert Half Management Resources, a Menlo Park, Calif., staffing service company, revealed that financial industry candidates with strong soft skills overshadow those with only technical skills. In fact, 53 percent of chief financial officers said they would hire someone with fewer technical skills if the candidate possessed strong soft skills. Soft skills help individuals at all levels, says Suzanne Allard, a partner with executive coaching firm Odyssey Inc., Charlottesville, Va.

Allard says she has encountered many successful clients who are action-oriented, focused and driven. But they lack interpersonal communication skills and because of that they’re surrounded by disgruntled colleagues and a frustrated management team.

Experts such as Klaus and Allard argue that refining soft skills is an excellent way to recession-proof your career in a down economy.

Many online training centers offer e-courses on a wide range of topics, from writing concise e-mails to dealing with conflict. Larger corporations also offer such training on a regular basis.

So what soft skills do employers value? The answer depends on the individual goals and job description. Some general ones include:

Know thyself. To effectively improve your skill set you need to assess yourself and determine areas for improvement. Klaus says it is vital to keep learning new skills.

Career coaches and online assessment services help identify areas of weakness.

Each industry offers professional development courses that help individuals advance in their careers. By pursuing these opportunities, you’re showing that you’re a confident employee committed to achieving excellence.

Learn to read individuals and build relationships. “Learning about the motivations and behavioral styles of colleagues and supervisors helps employees build strong relationships with a variety of people,” Allard said.

You learn about people by listening to them — another important soft skill — and observing how they interact with others. When you develop your interpersonal communication skills, you’re more likely to emerge as a leader.

Take initiative and solve problems. Klaus says it’s not enough to be good at getting things done. “You need to be seen as someone who is looking for ways to get tasks done better,” she said.

This requires that you stay current with industry trends so that you can offer solutions based on careful analysis and best practices. Not only are you showing that you’re a self-starter but you’re also putting your critical thinking skills to work.

Learn to write effectively. Employers have long complained that too few workers know how to write well. The situation has only gotten worse with the rise of instant messaging and its use of incomplete words and sentences. The best way to develop this skill is to practice. Check out any online course or take a class at a local college.

Learn how to communicate effectively in business documents such as e-mails, letters, reports and presentations.

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