What are hard skills?

For most jobs, you need a combination of hard skills and soft skills to succeed. But what do those terms actually mean? And how do you know the difference between them? 

In basic terms, hard skills are the technical skills you need to be able to do a job. Hard skills are also usually easier to quantify. Soft skills describe your abilities to work with other people. And they can be more difficult to objectively measure. 

Keep reading to learn more about hard skills and soft skills. Plus, find out what kinds of hard skills are in demand and how you can start adding them to your repertoire. 

Key takeaways

  • Hard skills are practical or technical skills that can be easily quantified and evaluated.
  • Soft skills, or “people skills,” are often equally important to succeeding at a job. But they’re typically harder to measure. 
  • You can learn hard skills in a variety of ways, including formal education, online courses, on-the-job training and independent learning.
  • Many employers want job candidates with a combination of hard and soft skills. 

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What is a hard skill, exactly?

Hard skills describe someone’s practical, quantifiable expertise in a particular subject matter. That can be anything from computer programming and proofreading to accounting, project management and much more.

Recruiters and hiring managers might look for hard skills that are backed up by a degree, certification or training that shows a candidate’s level of achievement and expertise.

You can think of hard skills as the non-negotiable abilities you need to be able to do a certain job. If you’re an electrical engineer, for example, people skills might be good to have and could make the job easier. But if you can’t understand and apply the science and technology behind electrical engineering, you can’t do the job at all. 

Hard skills vs. soft skills

Both hard skills and soft skills are valuable tools that can help you succeed in the workplace. 

Hard skills are the skills you need to perform the mechanics of the job. Soft skills are the skills you use to relate to, understand and work with other people. You might hear them referred to as people skills or interpersonal skills.  

Soft skills are still incredibly important parts of succeeding in many jobs. They include things like communication skills, leadership abilities, problem solving, time management and more. And soft skills can be learned and practiced. But they might be harder to measure and quantify when compared to hard skills. 

Business colleagues having a brainstorming session in the office using a tablet.

Examples of in-demand hard skills

The specific hard skills you need to know will vary widely depending on the job or industry you’re interested in. Here are a few examples of some in-demand hard skills: 

1. Data analysis 

Data analysis is the science of interpreting raw data, making conclusions about what the data says and using that information to help businesses succeed. 

Data analysts help companies do things like improve efficiency, get to know their customers, increase profit and more. 

If you’re interested in learning about data analysis, you might want to learn how to use some software tools and even some basic computer programming languages, too. 

2. Accounting

According to Harvard Business School, basic accounting can be a great skill to add to your resume. That can be true even if you’re not in a traditional accounting role, like a CPA or an accountant. 

Knowing things like how cash flow and profitability work can give you a better understanding of a company as a whole. And it might help set you apart from other job applicants. 

3. Computer skills

There aren’t many jobs these days where you don’t need at least basic computer skills. But diving a little deeper might open up more opportunities. 

Having a few advanced computer skills—like knowing how to use graphic design software, basic coding languages or accounting software—can help make you a valuable asset to many employers. 

4. Writing

Even if you’re not in a role where you’re writing full time, having competent writing skills can help you across so many industries. 

Being able to write emails, reports, presentations and more that are easy to understand—and free from grammatical errors and typos—can help you seem professional and competent, no matter what your job is.  

5. Languages

Speaking multiple languages can be a great way to give you an edge over the competition. This can be especially useful if you’re working for a company that has clients, employees or customers who speak different languages.

6. Project management 

Project management is exactly what it sounds like. You manage a project’s schedule, make sure tasks are completed correctly and on time, and communicate with clients and stakeholders if necessary. 

If you’re interested in project management, you might consider learning how to use some common project management software. And maybe reach out to an experienced project manager in your network to ask for some guidance and advice. 

Other hard skills

Some examples of other hard skills include:

  • Cybersecurity 
  • Web development 
  • Plumbing 
  • Nursing 
  • Electrical engineering 
  • Architecture 
  • Statistical analysis
  • Photography 
  • Editing 
  • Copywriting 
  • Data entry 

These are just some examples of hard skills across different industries. But there are many more valuable hard skills you could learn, too. 

Student using a desktop computer while learning in the classroom.

Acquiring new hard skills

Learning new hard skills can help you expand your knowledge base and might even give you the edge you need to move up in your career. Or if you’re looking to change jobs or industries, finding ways to hone new hard skills can help you make that move. 

Learning new hard skills might give you:

  • Motivation. Learning new things is exciting. Acquiring new skills can give people something to strive for and look forward to. And if it can help you move up in your career or find a new one, that’s an added bonus. 
  • Opportunity. Expanding your skillset can open up growth opportunities that might help you take the next steps in your professional life.  
  • Confidence. Developing new skills shows that you have what it takes to accomplish your goals. And that confidence can help take some of the anxiety out of facing new, challenging situations.

If you want to pick up some new hard skills, the first step is to figure out what you want to learn. Then, it’s time to decide how you’re going to do it. For example, not everyone enjoys in-person learning, so an online program may work best for you. Or the opposite could be true if you thrive in a more personal setting.

Here are some ways you might go about learning new hard skills: 

  • Colleges and universities offer a variety of courses, both online and in person. Think about your own learning style and see if you can find a course that works for you. 
  • Certificate programs can give you the expertise you need. And they might take less time than getting a degree. It’s important to research any program you’re considering and make sure it’s reputable.
  • On-the-job training can be a great way to learn a new skill. You can get personalized instruction, and you get to practice your new skills right away. 

If you want to take a do-it-yourself approach to learning hard skills, you can always find resources independently and practice new skills on your own. 

Adding hard skills to your resume

If you want your resume to get plucked out of the pile, keep these guidelines in mind when applying for a job:

  • Read the job posting carefully and feature the experience and skills you have that are most relevant to the job.
  • In your opening paragraph or cover letter, consider highlighting a few relevant hard skills you have that are required for the job.
  • Add any education and training that relates to the job.
  • Include a skills section for any additional hard and soft skills you want to call attention to. 
  • Consider listing your skills in order of relevance to the position you’re applying for.

When scanning your resume, one of a hiring manager’s main concerns is often that you have the skills and knowledge to perform the job. And by clearly listing your skills, you might have a better chance of landing the interview.

Hard skills in a nutshell

For most jobs, you need a combination of hard skills and soft skills. And it’s important that you understand the difference between the two.

Hard skills are the specific, often technical areas of expertise that people need to be able to do a job. Recruiters often look at hard skills first to determine whether candidates are qualified at a basic level. 

Some hard skills, like computer skills, can be valuable to a wide variety of businesses. Other hard skills are specialized and will only be valued in some professions, like nursing or plumbing. 

Now that you know what hard skills are—and how to acquire them— it might be time to learn more about how to write a resume and how to write a cover letter to help your job application shine even more. 

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