Seeking Soft Skills

With the ability to train hard skills, some organisations are looking for hires that align to values and culture instead.

By Simon Kent

Skill shortages abound across many sectors of EMEA business. Problem areas are no longer confined to specialist roles or niche industries. Employers everywhere are facing a candidate-driven market where competition for talent is already high and increasing. In the face of this, employers are now looking to secure employees with good soft skills with the intention of bringing their technical skills up to speed once in place. In fact, LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends report found that 92 per cent of U.K. businesses report that soft skills are now as important or more important than hard skills.

Debi Bell, head of HR services at wastewater utilities solution provider Lanes Group, reports facing challenges recruiting workers with manual technical skills in the company’s sector. Roles such as HGV drivers are hard to fill with operatives now able to shop around for jobs. Bell says an ageing workforce exacerbates the challenge since younger talent seems less attracted to the work.

“There are only so many experienced drainage engineers or HGV drivers,” says Bell, “so we have had to change our recruitment process and spend more resources on training than ever before.”

Soft skills in U.K. Businesses

Soft Skills in business

The company now trains HGV drivers and CCTV engineers. Whilst the business finds some of the talent it invests in subsequently leaves, it does re-employ people—a facet of the nomadic nature of the sector.

Even with the training solution Lanes Group offers, Bell is clear that the scenario could be improved if training further addressed new talent for the industry. “My ideal situation would be to have a training academy of sorts so we can train up people who have no previous experience of drainage,” she says.

Ewen MacPherson is in a different boat. “Whilst we have not experienced difficulties recruiting technically proficient talent due to scarcity, we have due to competition,” says the HR director of Havas Media Group. “The pressure to attract and retain top talent is sharpening as the media landscape becomes more competitive.”

For MacPherson, the need for talent means the business has had to address how it recruits and has brought an additional focus to internal succession planning and the pipelining of junior and entry-level talent through internships and apprenticeships. Facilitating this kind of career path naturally involves training on the technical side of the industry.

“Another consideration is for the generations of future talent that are only just entering the market or will do in the next five years,” adds MacPherson. “Most of these people will be doing jobs that don’t exist yet, so they have to be recruited based on soft skills. For these future employees, soft skills will be arguably more important too—creativity, resilience, critical thinking, emotional intelligence—these are the traits that will give employees the edge in the context of all this change.”

MacPherson’s eye on the future is shared by Paul Hargreaves, author of “Forces for Good” and director at U.K.-based SME wholesale food distributors, Cotswold Fayre. Rather than considering the skill set of the future workforce, however, he is more concerned that his new employees will support the business with whatever they end up doing. “It is tempting to make life easier and just fill skills gaps,” he says, “but whilst this is easier in the short term, it will make your life more difficult in the long term. More recently, we look to character. Yes, they need to have some degree of talent within the area of the company we are recruiting for, but far better that they are aligned with our values rather than an exact fit to our skills gap.”

A focus on soft skills may in theory open organisations to a wider talent pool, but it is clear it doesn’t make the recruitment process particularly easier. “Soft skills are not only harder to recruit for, but they are harder to identify during the recruitment process,” says Michael Brown, digital learning manager at Vanquis Bank. “The traditional interviews and whatever competency checks or assessments are done are usually around experience and knowledge. It’s often difficult to measure and improve soft skills until you know someone a bit better.”

Hargreaves agrees. “Character match is harder to find on paper so it may be that there are more interviews, albeit shorter ones, as the right character is fairly easy to spot by my management team and I within a few minutes of an interview.”

As Hargreaves notes, some businesses have taken the need for a good character fit even further, like U.S. tech company Zappos, where new employees take a two-week induction course on the company’s values. After this, the new recruits are offered $5,000 to leave the company if they do not believe in those values.

It should also be noted that whilst organisations are concerned with training their new entrants in the technical side of the business, soft skills are also being targeted for improvement. Technology can help. The e-learning platform from GoodHabitz has been designed to help improve soft skills across the whole organisation. “We are always looking to help people develop skills further,” says Vanquis Bank’s Brown. “In my previous role, we worked closely on providing face-to-face training for the business and we had large scale projects in our call centre on improving soft skills. It wasn’t because people had poor soft skills, but because we knew there were other techniques we could use to enhance what they could do and further improve.”

For many companies, regardless of sector, delivering a competitive edge now means delivering an exceptional customer experience. Training employees to secure the hard skills required to do the job properly is a necessity, but investing in soft skills is becoming increasingly important for businesses that truly want to thrive.

Posted April 18, 2019 in Engaged Workforcein Learning

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