When someone says “residential trades,” the first thing we typically think of is the skilled technician walking onto the job with their tool belt, being directed where the “problem” is, and then descending into the basement or up into the attic or crawling under the house to fix the problem with their tools and their hands.

Naturally, when we are looking for skilled trades talent, we hone in on the candidate’s technical ability to do the job first and foremost. We check to ensure all the skills, certifications, and technical trainings have been completed and if they are, we almost always make the hire. But are there other skills we should be considering as well?

Hard skills or “technical skills” are tangible abilities that are necessary for employees to fulfill their day-to-day responsibilities. These are typically learned through education, certification, or on-the-job training. These skills are obviously critical to be a successful technician. However, there is an entire other set of skills — “soft skills” — which are defined by the intangibles or personal attributes that characterize human or social interactions. These tend to be inherent to personality, but with some training and coaching can be learned.

In a recent ManpowerGroup survey of 2,000 employers, over 50% of organizations listed problem-solving, collaboration, customer service, and communication as the most valued skills. It makes sense that the trades have evolved in this direction as well.

While tradesmen and tradeswomen must have the technical ability to do their jobs, they also need to have a level of emotional intelligence to build successful relationships critical to any customer-facing business. Specifically, in the residential trades, they often interact with customers who may be under undue stress because their a/c is not working on a 90° day, or they have a house full of people and the toilets won’t flush. The job of the technician is to not only fix the tangible problem, but also provide relief to their anxiety-riddled customer by answering their many questions about the scope of the work, how it will be completed, and the progress being made. In addition, often projects are completed with a team, so the ability to interact successfully and professionally with coworkers while on the job is also paramount.

Recruiters and hiring managers must conduct interviews that are balanced in both technical skills and behavioral skills. This is accomplished by having a clear understanding of the job expectations and responsibilities to ensure the candidate can check all the technical boxes as well as including open-ended questions that will determine their ability to fulfill the soft skills needed for the job.

Here is a table showing some important soft skills, how they benefit the customer relationships, and some suggested questions for determining where candidates might be adept, and where they might need some additional training:

Skill Ability Behavior-based Questions
Approachable and friendly Puts the customer at ease to build relationships
  • How do you establish quick rapport with customers the first time you meet?
  • Describe a time when you needed to be calm in the midst of chaos.
Customer centric communication Ability to use empathetic listening and simplified technical language
  • Describe a time you successfully calmed down a highly stressed homeowner when you walked onto a project.
  • Describe a time you had to simplify an HVAC, plumbing, or electrical problem to clarify the thinking of the customer.
  • Walk me through a time a customer disagreed with how you were handling your work, and how you handled that.
Problem solving Ability to troubleshoot technical problems; make decisions to determine solutions
  • Walk me through your process to problem solve a technical issue.
  • Describe a situation when you needed to make a decision to solve a problem independently.
  • Describe a time you handled conflicting direction from the company and what the customer wanted.
Agility Manage pressures to unexpected changes
  • How do you work through deadline pressures on a project?
  • Describe how you juggle the workload of your day.
  • How do you manage unexpected changes in the workday?
Teamwork Working with others to balance workload
  • Tell me about a time when you were required to lead a project.
  • Describe a time you and a coworker had to collaborate to complete a project.
  • What is your approach when working with others on the same project?

At the end of the day, we are all humans and need to interact at that level, no matter how technical the job is. We have to make sure we are not rushing the hiring process, so that we learn about the whole person and not just that they check the technical boxes. Now more than ever, soft skills matter, even in a hard technical occupation.