Soft Skills – The Hard Facts!

Are we guilty of setting up the youth of today for future career failure?

I recently had the opportunity to work with a valued client, looking to hire a junior administrator. Having advertised the vacancy as a “junior” role, I was immediately inundated with a large volume of applicants, many of whom were recent graduates from a selection of the Irish Universities and Institutes of Technology.

What struck me most over the course of screening and interviewing several of these applicants was the marked variances in their interview styles, communication abilities and in some cases basic self-awareness. Honours degrees in a variety of business related disciplines bore little or no influence over the respective candidates’ communication skills. Even a simple handshake was instructive on the relative merits of each applicant, with an opinion quickly forming in my mind of just how good a fit this candidate was for my client. And if this was sufficient for me to form an opinion, then it was highly probable that my client – the employer, would reach a similar conclusion.

Another simple soft skill I found markedly absent amongst several graduate calibre candidates was the ability to maintain eye contact. On a couple of occasions, I observed the frankly unsettling sight of a candidate’s eyes darting all around the room when speaking directly to me or when answering what I thought were simple, straightforward questions about their CV’s and past experiences. Sadly, it’s unlikely that those candidates were even aware of this behaviour and in some cases were clearly confused as to why they hadn’t yet secured a job. As a Recruitment Professional, it would be remiss of me not to provide these candidates with some constructive feedback and in all cases I was honest and upfront about my observations and I hope that they took the advice on board.

But this got me thinking about why were these key soft skills missing in the first place? What is it about our education programmes that has seen a pattern develop where graduates spend sometimes three to four years attaining a degree but then seem decidedly undercooked when it comes to interviewing for their first job? And most importantly, what should be done about it?

Well firstly let’s look at the core soft skills most employers seek? These skills may include (but are not exclusive to) Teamwork; Influencing/Leadership; Listening; Emotional Intelligence; Attitude; Tolerance; Accountability; Honesty and Communication. But why are they so important? A recent survey undertaken by CPL found that 96% of employers hire on attitude above experience. Attitude speaks loudly in any interview, but most importantly a good attitude communicates so much more about a candidate’s respective abilities than a CV or past experience ever could. As someone once said, a good attitude is like having a good engine in your car, the more finely tuned it is the further you’ll get.

The difficulty with developing good soft skills is that it really should commence in school, ideally at primary level. Too often by the time a child enters second level education, the emphasis is on striving for academic achievement and points and less so on the importance of developing the type of soft skills that will ultimately assist them in their work lives. Having consulted with some academic experts in this area, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the ASSIST project. This is part of a European LLP (Lifelong Learning Project) and an initiative undertaken by the University of Limerick’s Technology Education Research division in partnership with a local secondary school. Forming a part of the GRASS (Grading and Assessment of Soft Skills) project designed to assess soft skills in student teachers, the University are taking steps to focus on developing their teaching graduates’ soft skills and award Digital Badges for competence in a variety of skills, including articulation, collaboration, creativity, knowledge, proactivity and responsibility.

The idea is that these Digital Badges will feature prominently on their graduate’s CV’s, providing a valid, recognisable stamp of approval on the graduate’s respective strengths in each soft skill category. The GRASS/ASSIST project is grounded in a pedagogical approach that places the learner at the centre of any educational and assessment activity. Their approach to assessment of the soft skills emphasises the need for self-awareness whilst developing in students the capacity to critique and evaluate their own soft skills and that of their peers.

So why not introduce soft skill development and badging at an earlier stage in our academic cycle? Chances are that by the time most kids reach third level education, their soft skills (or lack thereof) are already in place or not, so corrective steps need to be taken while they’re still in school. Why not make developing these soft skills a core part of the curriculum? E.g. Teach kids the importance of being open minded, tolerant, good listeners. Teach them about leadership and influencing and how possession of the finer skills in their suite of strengths can positively impact their future careers, regardless of industry, sector or level. Representing achievements through the awarding of soft skill digital badges would give formal validation and recognition for student effort and provide a mechanism to illuminate the currency of soft skill credentials.

A 2014 study by the Monarch Institute in Melbourne found that while 15% of your workplace success comes from your hard skills, 85% comes from your ability to get on with people. It’s this last point that perhaps is the ultimate arbitrator of what can define an individual’s career success. The ability to form good soft skills at an earlier stage in ones development has a major bearing on your career prospects. While good soft skills alone won’t secure you every job, bad ones will ensure that you don’t. Make soft skills and interview techniques a key learning and development tool in the schools and the chances are that everyone from employers to future graduates will all benefit.

Campbell Rochford – Turning Good To Great.

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