The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) projects that over 1.8 million students will graduate with a bachelor's degree in 2015. Despite this, and despite the fact that youth unemployment rates were at 11.9% as of February 2015 (more than twice the average national unemployment rate), businesses are still having trouble filling positions. Why is this? With so many potential candidates and available job openings, why are we still seeing such a discrepancy? The answer may be that many of today’s graduates are lacking interpersonal communication skills.    

In a survey conducted by Workforce Solutions Group, it was revealed that more than 60% of employers say that applicants are not demonstrating sufficient communication and interpersonal skills to be considered for jobs. Apparently, while universities are able to nurture the necessary critical thinking and problem solving skills of the next generation of employees, they neglect teaching soft skills that employees use to interact with bosses, clients, and each other.

But just how important are soft skills? That’s a difficult question to answer, mostly because it’s next to impossible to find an aspect of business that does not depend upon interpersonal communication in some way. Even a solitary app designer who works from home and never sees another human face will still have to reach out to others in some way for his or her product to be made available to the public. Every interaction, business or otherwise, depends on a person’s ability to communicate ideas and concepts to another person. Employers recognize this fact, with 77% of employers saying that soft skills are just as important as hard skills. However, it actually goes even further than that. Interpersonal communication skills aren’t just as important as other skills, they’re actually the most important skills prospective employees can learn. They stand to become even more vital in the years and decades to come: A study performed by Pew Research Center asked a national sample of adults to select from among ten options the single skill which is most important for children to learn in order to succeed in the world, and 90% of respondents selected ‘communication’ as their answer.

To put it simply, interpersonal communication skills are more important than intelligence in the business world. Here’s why:

1. Customer service is more important than ever

Customer service has always played a part in business, but now more than ever before, organizations are realizing that the satisfaction of their customers is tied directly to the success or failure of the company. Where once customers’ purchase choices were limited to what businesses were located within easy travel distance of their homes, the modern market provides nearly limitless potential choices from around the world—all connected and accessible at any time. For businesses to really stand out from competition, they need to offer more than just convenience and low prices. Employees with the necessary communication skills to easily interact with customers in a friendly and non-threatening way provide potential clients with something they may not be able to get elsewhere, increasing loyalty and customer retention. Given that, on average, loyal customers are worth up to 10 times the cost of their first purchase, this results in significant increases in revenue for an organization. Customer experience today isn’t limited only to the individual, but a shared experience via various social media channels (positive or negative). 67% of customers have used a company’s social media site for servicing, which means a significant amount of customers are turning to social media to address service-related issues. Those with the interpersonal skills to help these customers are actually helping to create brand ambassadors, because customers who feel engaged by businesses through social media spend on average 20–40% more with that business, and are three times more likely to recommend that business to others.   

2. Individuals are more willing to work with people they like

In theory, the organization with the best products or the lowest prices should always be the one to succeed. In practice, however, this just isn’t always the case. When faced with decisions, most people will unconsciously lean in the direction of the choice that they feel better about, regardless of what facts and logic may dictate. This is especially true in today’s market, where many options offer similar solutions, making a number-driven decision especially difficult. While most businesses recognize that emotion and feeling play a part in the decision-making process, few realize just how large of a part that is; 98% of top salespeople identify relationships as the most important factor in generating new business. The ability to effectively understand, communicate and influence are underrated skills in the workplace. Even for those who do not work directly with clients, interpersonal communication skills are still vitally important. These skills help facilitate productive co-worker relationships, and can have a large impact on the overall success or failure of a business. For example, the stress caused by having to work underneath a manager who lacks interpersonal skills is believed to cost American companies an estimated $360 billion every year

3. Hard skills are increasingly being performed by machines

There is little doubt as to the value of soft skills in business, but it may still seem like a stretch to say that interpersonal communications skills are more important than intelligence. Consider automation, however: As technology continues to progress, it’s becoming painfully obvious that more jobs than just those centered around production lines are in jeopardy of being made obsolete. When at one time automated systems could only perform simple tasks, now they’re able to handle a magnitude of responsibilities, including accounting, marketing, sales, and more. But one area where automation is unlikely to overtake humanity is in being personable. Those who’ve mastered people skills will always have an edge over automation. In fact, certain forecasters predict that the job market of the near future will consist of only two types of people: those who know how to design and operate automated systems, and those with creative and social skills whose job it will be to deal directly with customers. In essence, soft skills may soon be some of the only marketable skills that new hires can bring to the table.

As the costs associated with college tuition continue to climb, many students are graduating in their chosen field, only to find that the hard skills they’ve spent years studying don’t allow them the standard of living they’ve been anticipating. Instead, those who are attempting to enter the workforce should focus on developing their communications skills, and should be looking for ways to demonstrate those skills to potential employers. After all, most employers recognize a certain amount of on-the-job training is necessary when bringing a new hire into the company. What cannot be so easily taught are things such as etiquette, adaptability, teamwork, internal communication, and conflict resolution. And, when it comes to business, these are often the most important skills of all.

As you hire the employees who will potentially become the backbone of your business in the years and decades to come, ask yourself where your focus lies. Are you considering candidates based solely upon the hard skills they include in their résumés, or are you looking for something more? If soft skills are not a prerequisite for your new hires, you may find yourself operating a business filled with an exceptionally skilled—yet completely ineffective—workforce.