Soft Skills Are Hard to Find

Across emergency management, dependent upon specific jobs, we certainly need to apply a lot of technical skillsets. So often, though, soft skills are dismissed, which is quite ironic given that soft skills are really the foundation of what emergency managers need given our emphasis on communication, collaboration, and coordination.

If you aren’t familiar with the term, soft skills are things that are generally applicable to various types of work. These include things like communication, writing, leadership, teamwork, problem solving, organizing, time management, and others. These are skills generally expected of any working professional. They can be honed, but often require some innate ability. Soft skills are different from hard skills, which are those that tend to be more technical and industry specific. These are also generally something acquired more through learning and less dependent upon innate ability.

FEMA’s Professional Development Series (PDS) used to be a cornerstone of emergency management training. Many state emergency management training programs had an emphasis on these courses and the content they provided. The PDS offered soft skills courses, such as Effective Communication, Decision Making and Problem Solving, and Leadership alongside training on topics more so focused on emergency management topics. These courses did a lot to support the professionalism of emergency managers and their abilities to do their jobs in a reasonably comprehensive nature. About 15 years ago FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute made the decision to offer these courses as part of their Independent Study program, a choice that made the content more widely available while also arguably decreasing the effectiveness of the training by removing the dynamics of a live instructor and the learning gained from group activities. While states still had the option to continue delivering classroom versions of these courses, demand severely dropped as people opted to take the courses online.

While the PDS is still available, it’s in a diminished popularity. FEMA’s EMI now offers the National Emergency Management Basic Academy, which provides a great series of courses, and to their credit, they do include some soft skills topics within the courses, especially the Foundations of Emergency Management course. That said, we still need more. Soft skills aren’t a one-off, they need to be built and honed. While FEMA’s EMI isn’t the only provider of soft skills training, they are the go-to provider for most emergency managers.

Having recently had the opportunity to review the participant manual for the new Advanced Planning Practitioner course, I was very happy to see the thought put into providing content on soft skills particularly as they relate to the hard skills involved in emergency planning. Emergency planning at its essence is absolutely a hard skill, with specific technical aspects, but there are several soft skills that are complimentary to the process of emergency planning, without which the planning effort will be less than effective. Consider that so much of emergency planning is consensus building, coordination, meeting management, research, and writing. Communication, facilitation, and public speaking are central to much of this.

I think a lot of people have a tendency to roll their eyes at soft skills, thinking that their abilities are already at peak performance or claiming that they are good because they took a course 15 years ago. As professionals in emergency management, we need to regularly spend time honing our skills. Yes, there are plenty of technical things for us to be trained in and practice such as plan writing, exercises, ICS, etc., but soft skills make us better at doing those things. Both in government service and as a consultant, I see far too many people lacking in soft skills. There may be some highly technical jobs where soft skills have less importance, but soft skills in emergency management are just as important, if not more important, than some technical skills, especially when you consider that one of the greatest values we contribute is our ability to bring people to the table, facilitate discussions, and gain consensus on important decisions before, during, and after disaster. How all that is applied may very well be technical, but we can’t get there without good soft skills.

What do you think are the most valuable soft skills?

© 2021 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

The Future of Virtual Learning and Collaboration – Free Webinar

Passing this along from the folks at training magazine.  It’s free!

The Future of Virtual Learning and Collaboration

Date: Thursday, January 31, 2013
Time: 10:00 AM Pacific / 1:00 PM Eastern

Join Training magazine on Thursday, January 31, for this complimentary Webinar, presented by UNC Executive Development, and learn to create rich, robust and collaborative learning environments that can be delivered anywhere and anytime.

Follow this link to register for this complimentary Webinar, The Future of Virtual Learning and Collaboration.

Attend this live Webinar and learn to:

  • Create an effective virtual environment that can be customized to deliver an interactive and engaging learning experience.
  • Increase collaborative learning through the use of virtual classrooms and social technology.
  • Blend formal learning programs with informal learning to increase engagement.

Register for this complimentary Webinar today!


Stephen Green
President, Graduate Programs
2U, Inc.


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Let’s Bring Human Interaction Back Into Training

I love technology.  I really do.  I generally don’t have any problems with the accomplishments or advancements we’ve made and I’m not looking to abolish any of the triumphs or practices we have in place as a result of technology, but there are some things we have to step back on a bit.  One of those things is the extreme volume of self-paced, internet learning, e-learning, independent study, etc. types of programs out there.  We’ve accomplished a great deal in regard to these self driven types of programs and they do have value – yet I think we’re losing touch with the human factor.

When I started in the training business, the internet was still fairly youthful and humanity hadn’t yet realized all the potential it held (we still don’t, but we were a much longer ways away from it then).  There was no such thing as online learning.  You could download training materials and references, maybe even submit test answers online (although the norm was still to fax answers), but that was about as interactive as it got.  The next step was pretty pathetic – uploading slides in a PowerPoint format or something similar, to the internet for people to view.  As time progressed, we saw great advances in online learning.  Now we have video, audio, in-course quizzes and learning checks, even biometrically-driven verification systems to ensure that it’s still you taking the course (don’t believe me?  take the defensive driving course on-line).  Courses are much more comprehensive and provide both internal and external links to additional information and content areas.  I think it’s fantastic and we can’t stop this advancement – but we can’t let it take over, either.  All things in moderation.

People need interaction.  In 1970, Malcolm Knowles identified, as one of his six characteristics of adult learners, that adult learners are generally autonomous and self-directed.  While this may be true, it doesn’t mean that all learning is to be accomplished in isolation or without facilitation.  Adult learners still need human interaction.  While the degree of interaction necessary may vary based upon each individual’s preferred learning styles and personality type, that need still exists.  This is an interaction that generally can’t be replaced by games or other interactive components in e-learning programs.  Yes, many adults love the concept and process of self discovery, and some will excel greatly at absorbing information completely on their own, but most people need and desire human interaction.  We can’t forget this.

Some content areas are much more suited (read: ideal) for e-learning.  I recently began working with a company that has employees nation-wide.  E-learning is certainly the best structure to disseminate required programs such as business ethics and workplace harassment.  In fact, these programs were extremely well done.  They used a lot of audio, pictures, and knowledge checks throughout the programs.  They were designed to provide variety and appeal to the senses.  They were well structured and didn’t contain any of the cheesy videos many of us remember from previous iterations of these types of programs.  I can honestly say that I preferred these in an e-learning format over any previous classroom experience in the same subject areas I’ve ever had.

Why do programs like ethics and workplace harassment work very well in an e-learning format?  Because, if designed well, they require very little human interaction to facilitate the learning process.  There are programs that I have taught for many years, however, that MUST have human interaction, such as incident management and emergency planning topics.  I think the key here is that they are complex topics, with a lot of variables, and the real world execution of these topics requires team work and human interaction.  You can’t manage an incident inside a barrel nor can you write an emergency plan (a good one) without input from an entire team of people.  The instructors have to have experience in these areas and be subject matter experts that the learners can consult throughout the class.  Access to an SME helps the learners become more comfortable with the topic.  All this said, do these courses need to be delivered in a classroom environment?  Not necessarily.  We can still be interactive with others without being face to face.  It’s all about creativity, leveraging technology and other resources, and paying attention to the needs of our learners as well as the objectives of the courses themselves.

We have a number of distance learning options we can leverage, from webinars, to video teleconference, to chat room types of environments (and these can be highly integrated such as the ones used by educational institutions).  Does course participation (in whole or in part) have to be synchronous (the instructor is present with all learners at the same time) or can it be asynchronous (the instructor and learners can log in at different times, able to download and upload materials and leave messages for each other)?  It all depends on what needs to be accomplished.  Once again, as in previous blogs, I defer back to the needs assessment.  The data collected from the needs assessment will provide an astute instructional designer with information necessary to identify the delivery modes that would be appropriate for the learners.

With all the technology we have available to us, I think many learning organizations are being seduced into using e-learning platforms for everything.  E-learning and content management systems are very powerful and valuable tools, but can’t forget the human factor.  We need to be very careful with what we use and how we use it – and ensure that we are meeting the needs of our learners in the best way possible.  I encourage you to use caution and always consider what is best for the learner.