According to a new survey from IT analyst, research, validation, and strategy firm ESG, 53% of respondents reported a problematic shortage of cybersecurity skills within their company or organization. While this isn’t new, ESG also reported that this shortage has been increasingly steadily since the 2015-2016 survey, which found 42% of organizations reporting a problematic shortage of cybersecurity skills.

Another report from Cybersecurity Ventures indicated there will be 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs by 2021. But it’s not just professionals with cyber skills that are needed. The Northern Virginia Technology Council recently noted that employers in the region are also struggling to find candidates who have both the technical and soft skill competencies they need. Employers cite soft skills deficiencies as their primary pain point outside of the obvious shortage of qualified candidates.

The situation is such that many employers now say they would consider hiring a candidate who does not meet all of the technical competency requirements if the candidate had strong soft skill competencies. The reasoning is that they could ‘upskill’ technical competencies, yet lacked the expertise to do the same with soft skills that can include written and verbal communication skills that are fundamental for teamwork and problem solving.

“Many skilled, technical candidates do not have the soft skills needed to work effectively with other business units,” explained Darien Kindlund, vice president of technology at McLean, Virginia-based Insight Engines, developers of artificial and machine learning technology.

“Historically, large employers have tried finding technically qualified candidates and then train them on corresponding soft skills, as needed,” Kindlund told ClearanceJobs. “However, this approach is not ideal for small and medium sized firms.”

Increasingly some companies are finding it easier to find candidates with the requisite soft skills, and then investing in technical training.

“As we look to recruit for our workforce we look at those with solid communication skills, and those who are self-motivated and can work alongside their colleagues,” said James Christopher, executive vice president for operations and engineering at 1901 Group, an IT  service management company based in Reston, Va., with another office in Blacksburg near the Virginia Tech Campus.

“There are a variety of soft skills, but in many cases technology is actually easier to teach than soft skills,” Christopher told ClearanceJobs.

Tech itself makes this kind of cross training easier.

“This different hiring trend appears to be growing, as employers are leveraging more tools to help up-level candidates that lack some technical skills but have strong soft skills,” said Kindlund. “For example, these tools include natural language interfaces that abstract many of the technical details from junior analysts that would otherwise require additional technical training.”

More Than Geek Speak

Today’s cybersecurity professionals clearly need to be able to think like hackers and cybercriminals, but also need to be able to be team players.

“Exemplary employees with highly sought-after technology skills, coupled with great soft skills that include above average communication, empathy, and a good grasp of their client and employer needs will always be in high demand,” said Nidhi Gulati, chief recruiter at Sevatec.

“Successful environments are about getting along with a variety of people and creating a smooth-functioning workplace that allows for more productivity,” Gulati told ClearanceJobs.

However, while many employers are now trying to focus on soft skills and teaching the technical skills, Gulati added that the lack of soft skills shouldn’t be seen as an immediate deal breaker.

“When there are gaps in a person’s soft skill set, there are creative ways to work on the issues,” she added. “In our experience at Sevatec, a person really needs to have the technology skill set first to be competent. Then, if the soft skills need some work, there are innovative solutions that we have found to be effective.”

Sevatec, which holds monthly meetups to bring people together so that they can share insights on business agility, has already had good results by pairing people who are willing to learn those soft skills with a seasoned mentor who actively coach them to grow in those areas.

“Someone may not innately have good people skills, but if they are open to self-assessment and professional improvement, they can learn soft skills by being surrounded by people who have those skills – such as emotional intelligence, enthusiasm, and a sincere caring for an organization’s wellbeing,” explained Gulati. “Positivity and enthusiasm really are contagious, and we’ve seen tremendous results at our company.”

In many cases it could still come down to finding the right person and determining if he/she has the basic skills – either soft or technical – to do the job and whether that candidate can be taught what is missing.

“We don’t see this employment gap changing anytime soon,” said Insight Engine’s Kindlund. “Soft skills are an interesting component, because as firms prioritize soft skills over technical skills, the overall pool of applicants increases and can help address some of these limitations.”

Soft Skills Needed at Every Level

This isn’t just about entry level employees either. Soft Skills are one area where even old dogs could learn new tricks.

“There is some truth in that,” Christopher added. “While we see that interns and entry level employees have a willingness to learn and interact with their co-workers in a professional manner, there is a work ethic we see with many individuals who are changing careers as well. We’ve had great success in attracting talent from a broad section of society, and this includes recruiting from the university or attracting from the non-technical talent pool. We help our folks get cleared and serve our government customer base.”

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com.