How Hiring Athletes Bridges the Soft Skills Gap

Wed 10th Apr 2024

Groundbreaking new research from the Harvard Business School has shown that hiring individuals from a sporting background can offer a clear solution to the global Skills Gap. In this article, we delve into this research and what it means for add-victor employers and candidates.


1: The Problem: Understanding the Soft Skills Gap

A 2023 report produced by McKinsey found that 87% of companies are experiencing, or anticipate, a skills deficit in their workforce. Amongst the key focus areas for upskilling employees were Decision Making, Leadership and Adaptability. In practice, developing these soft skills in current employees is a much steeper challenge than upskilling staff in hard skills such as Digital Competency or Data Analysis. When it comes to soft skills, a robust skills-based hiring strategy is key: particularly in the realm of Early Careers, companies should look to acquire individuals who can communicate well, work in a team, and adapt to different situations.


When it comes to soft skills, a robust skills-based hiring strategy is key


Clearly, this is proving a challenge for employers. The Covid pandemic only exacerbated the problem; a generation of young talent has missed out on crucial opportunities to develop their interpersonal skills[1]. The QS Skills Gap Report, published in October 2023, suggests that this has been keenly felt within the workplace. A survey of 16,000 employers highlighted a distinct gap between the importance they placed on certain soft skills and their satisfaction with these skills within their workforce. The most in-demand soft skill amongst employers globally was Teamwork, whilst the biggest satisfaction deficits were in Resilience, Problem Solving, Emotional Intelligence, and Communication. The problems this is causing are felt at the macroeconomic level too; according to PwC, the workforce skills gap could cost G20 countries $11.5 trillion in GDP growth loss by 2030.


2: The Solution: Research Backs Hiring Athletes

A recent study led by Harvard Business School’s Paul Gompers has confirmed what we all knew; hiring athletes is the solution. It has long been quoted that 95% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 90% of C-Suite women played competitive sports in their youth. The comprehensive research carried out by Gompers et al. has shown that the link is not limited to board-level.

The paper reviews the corporate careers of 401,785 individuals who graduated from Ivy League universities between 1970 and 2021, controlling for factors such as academic subject, college attended, and first job attained. The study found that those who had played college sport significantly outperformed their non-athletic counterparts over the course of their careers, earning 3.5% more money and attaining 17% more senior positions (cumulatively). These differences became particularly noticeable after 5+ years in the workplace. Furthermore, when looking at the LinkedIn Endorsements of the individuals, perhaps unsurprisingly former student-athletes were much more likely to be endorsed for skills such as Leadership and Project Management.

The research also found that those who had played more socio-economically and racially diverse sports such as Basketball or Football were even more likely to outperform non-athletes. This suggests that the career success of these individuals can confidently be attributed to the skills developed through sports, rather than other factors such as wealth, social status, or schooling. add-victor continues to celebrate diversity amongst its candidate pool, which now represents 80+ sports and 85+ nationalities, whilst the number of Ethnic Minority candidates on our platform grew by 114% in 2023.

As well as the obvious messages for employers to take from this research, there are valuable lessons for student-athletes and universities alike; university sport brings a unique set of skills and experiences to students, and should be celebrated accordingly. 

add-victor Infographics - How Athletes Bridge the Soft Skills Gap

3: add-victor Insights: Athlete Talent Leading the Way  

In-house research carried out by add-victor shows that our clients face these same challenges; the top three core skills sought by companies we work with are Communication, Resilience and Teamwork. Luckily, our candidates are delivering. Amongst our shortlisted candidates, the top five core skills they highlighted were Communication, Resilience, Teamwork, Problem Solving, and Leadership. They’ve got the badges to prove it, too: over 1/6 of our athletes captained their team. Similar interpersonal and strategic skills are to be found in ex-military personnel like Jesse Menghini.

Success stories like those of Holly Hill, Rahman Rafiuand Luke Baldwin are commonplace amongst the add-victor candidate pool. Retention figures amongst our placements (90.3%) confirm the genuine value these individuals bring to employers. As companies continue to struggle with the skills gap, Sport offers a dynamic and comprehensive solution.