What Are Hard Skills?

Hard skills are learned abilities that are acquired and enhanced through practice, repetition, and education. In business, hard skills most often refer to the basics of accounting and financial modeling.

By contrast, soft skills are less tangible and harder to teach. Getting along with others, listening well, and engaging in small talk are soft skills.

[Important: Hard skills generally have rules that remain the same regardless of the business, industry, or even culture in which they are practiced.]

Understanding Hard Skills

In a broad sense, hard skills may refer to proficiency in any complex task. Fluency in a second language, knowledge of PhotoShop or PowerPoint, or expertise in carpentry are all hard skills that can be learned and improved upon with practice.

These hard skills also are most often looked for in professional resumes. Any hard skill that a person cites is best backed up with a certificate, degree, or other qualification that indicates a level of achievement.

A person's soft skills are more intrinsic to personality and more difficult to judge quickly, but they may be as important on the job over time. They might include an ability to work on a team, flexibility, patience, and time management ability.

Hard skills are easier to teach, given a certain aptitude and enthusiasm. That's why employers often look for job applicants with soft skills rather than hard skills.

The Real Differences Between Hard Skills and Soft Skills

It was once believed that hard skills required the use of the left brain, or logic center, while soft skills were associated with the right brain, or emotional center. Recent studies by neuroscientists indicate that mental processes can't be categorized that neatly.

However, it can be said that hard skills generally have rules that remain the same regardless of the business, industry, or even culture in which they are practiced. The rules of soft skills can change depending on company culture and the expectations of colleagues.

For example, the rules for how a programmer creates code are the same regardless of where the programmer works. However, a programmer may communicate effectively to other programmers about technical details but struggle when communicating with senior managers about a project's progress or support needs.

Hard skills may be learned in schools, from books, or through apprenticeships. The levels of competency can be defined and there is a direct path for achieving them.

For example, a person may take basic and advanced accounting courses, gain work experience, and pass the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam.

Soft skills are not often found on the curriculum of a school or college. They are taught, however, in programs that help people develop communications skills, teamwork, or people management skills. These are most often offered through employer programs.

Example of Hard Skills

Accounting is a profession that requires a fairly rigid set of hard skills, particularly in this era. Proficiency in the Microsoft Office suite, especially Excel, is a given. Familiarity with industry-specific software such as Great Plains, QuickBooks, Peachtree, SAP Software, and tax preparation software also are required.

Accountants need to know how to prepare and interpret financial statements and other accounting reports, develop efficient financial reporting mechanisms, and plan and implement accounting controls.

Some of the other skills accountants need might be categorized as soft skills. They must be prepared to communicate effectively with regulators, to deal with external auditors, and to stay updated on current issues and changes in industry regulations.

Key Takeaways

  • Hard skills are acquired through education, practice, and repetition.
  • Hard skills can refer to proficiency in any complex task.
  • Unlike soft skills, their acquisition can usually be proved through a certificate, degree, apprenticeship, or work experience.