Soft and hard = just right

CarolinaFireJournal - DAVE MURPHY
04/26/2010 -

If you are old enough, you may remember the TV commercials depicting the kindly supermarket manager named Mr. Whipple squeezing the Charmin toilet paper? It was neither too hard nor too soft; it was “just right.”


From an employer’s viewpoint, what makes an employee “just right?” What traits do employers — including emergency service providers — actually seek when hiring or promoting someone?



The Vancouver Sun (10/2, Sankey) reports that although “hard technical skills are a basic requirement in any given field,” it is “the softer intangible skills that really set a job seeker apart from the crowd in the marketplace,” according to an informal survey of educators and recruiters. The survey found that “presentation, communication, listening ability, command of the language, social and personal habits, styles of management, leadership, problem-solving, creativity and optimism rank among the must-have skills in the new economy.” And “among the skills in greatest demand is the ability to self-manage, in combination with effective interpersonal skills,” while “being able to multi-task effectively and take on broader roles is also a key benefit to employers.”

Most people excel at certain things, but regardless of the chosen discipline, it is quite rare to find the “complete package” in regard to a model employee. Many individuals exhibit a high level of area specific technical (hard) skills, but they do not always express themselves well and may not always be “a part of the team.”

During these times of shrinking budgets and other once unfathomable problems, the need for individual energy/creativity has never been higher. Higher education and other training courses often tend to focus only on the technical aspects of a discipline. In actuality, it is other traits that seem to foster productivity and innovation.  The following employer related article excerpt tends to shed further light and reinforce this obvious deficit present in today’s’ workforce.

The Springfield (MO) Business Journal (7/28, Wagner) reports the results of the 2008 Missouri Job Vacancy Survey, which gathered information from employers about job vacancies and the types of unfilled positions, as well as additional information about benefits and incentives offered; education, experience and skills required; competencies important to filling those vacancies; and common shortcomings of applicants. Regarding “common skills gaps encountered when trying to fill job vacancies,” the report indicates that “job candidates should possess ‘soft skills,’ such as interpersonal communication, punctuality and good hygiene, as well as ‘hard skills,’ such as specific technical training or the ability to acquire and use information.” And, “the top three shortcomings exhibited by applicants are a lack of positive attitude, poor customer service skills and a poor work ethic.”

 As for the top three shortcomings noted above, how do you actually teach someone to have a positive attitude or instill a good work ethic? Hopefully, departmental pre-hire screening/background checks will eliminate those that obviously lack personal interest in these important areas. As for those already employed in the fire service, I maintain that departmental leaders should make these essential attributes mandatory and hold them accountable by way of a documented annual employee assessment.  Furthermore, we should and can actually teach concepts regarding team building, good customer service and incorporate them into departmental SOGs and SOPs. 

Merely showing up on time and performing to the minimum expectations associated with your job — being average — does not cut it in this modern age. Being average is not acceptable in any discipline, especially today’s fire service. If you are average, 50 percent of the department is below you and 50 percent of the membership is above you. This is certainly nothing to be proud of, is it?

Each employee must contribute their full weight in order to complete the mission safely and efficiently, day after day. The public expects, and pays for this. Remember why you are there — by improving and utilizing a combination of your soft and hard skills, you should be able to be a consistent contributing member of the overall team.

Mr. Whipple was not without fault, he was often “busted” for doing the same things that he berated his tissue fondling store patrons for. In reality, none of us are “just right,” but we can each identify personal weaknesses and strive to overcome them. If you are already a part of the team, the question is — are you making the team better or worse?  One last parting thought: “one should always aspire to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

Dave Murphy retired as Assistant Chief of the Richmond (KY) fire department and is currently an Associate Professor in the Fire Safety Engineering Technology program located at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Dave is past Eastern Director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association and currently serves as a member on NFPA 610 which deals with safety at motorsports venues.
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