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The Ideas Distillery
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Why soft skills can often be the hard truth

We are living in an era of constant change. Because businesses are becoming less dictatorial and more social, the understanding and value of soft skills to an organisation are growing daily.


‘Soft skills’ is a term relating to a collection of personal, positive attributes and competencies that enhance your relationships, job performance, and value to the market. Soft skills include your ability to listen well, communicate effectively, be positive, handle conflict, accept responsibility, show respect, build trust, work well with others, manage time effectively, accept criticism, work under pressure, be likeable, and demonstrate good manners.


‘Hard skills’ are specific, trainable abilities necessary to carry out the professional or technical requirements of a job or occupation. Hard skills would include knowledge, machine operation, computer procedures, safety standards, financial systems, technical analysis, and sales administration. Unlike soft skills, hard skills are typically easy to observe, quantify, and measure.


Investing in soft skills is vital for the competitiveness of the Welsh economy: we need to produce a workforce that is adaptable, can problem-solve individually and in teams, and can communicate and sell ideas.


Welsh businesses now operate in an increasingly competitive global economy and if we are going to succeed in this environment, prioritising Wales’ economic needs in our approach to lifelong education and skills development is vital.


The point about these employability skills, and why they are so vital, is that they are generic – they are relevant to virtually every job in every workplace in every industry. Every business uses them every day and so does every employee. The CBI’s skills report ‘Taking Stock’ found that, of the CEOs surveyed, 86% view the possession of a good level of employability skills as being the most important consideration when recruiting.


The world of knowledge-based business involves a continuous redefinition of organisational goals. This new business environment is characterised by radical and discontinuous change. The public sector is now experiencing the same. That is why we need people who are adaptable, can work with others who have differing views of the world, can problem solve individually and in teams, can learn new things and can communicate and sell ideas.


Our competitors – particularly those whose economies are growing at the fastest rates such as China and India – have rightly placed a huge level of importance on skill development including critically, these soft skills. What is good enough now for Wales will not be good enough in the future as these nations continue to strengthen their skills base at a colossal pace.


The statistics are staggering. China produces five million graduates a year. The Indian software company Infosys employs 100,000 new graduates each year! And soft skills are at the heart of their induction. Despite the importance of these competencies, too many new entrants to the world of work still lack adequate employability skills. The CBI / Pertemps Employment Trends Survey of last year found that that nearly half of employers were dissatisfied with graduates’ business awareness, over a quarter with their literacy skills and over a quarter again with their generic employability skills.


What is particularly worrying is that these are the high-achieving cadre of young people who have been through university, but still there are significant concerns about their readiness and preparedness for the world of work.


The vision and the challenge of equipping young people with the skills they need to be successful in the workplace cannot be achieved by any one stakeholder on their own. We need to work in partnership: the business community, the education community, business organisations, trade unions, the government and students themselves all have to understand the importance of employability skills for future personal and collective success, and make appropriate decisions and choices.


One of the most effective means of developing a student’s employability is through work-based learning. Work experience is one of the best ways of ensuring that young people get a better understanding of exactly what is required of them in the workplace. It means they can see and touch it and feel it for themselves. They see the skills they need – from the basics like turning up for work on time to more complex tasks like working effectively as part of a group – and they become aware of the consequences when it doesn’t occur.


Also, properly managed part-time employment gives exposure to working with others, being relied upon by colleagues, and dealing with real problems. If most young people undertake part time employment, we can also look for ways of bringing that experience into colleges and universities and use it to feed into more structured learning.


We must be bold. Every aspect of the school, FE and HE curriculum, what is taught and how it is taught, must be aligned with the demands that working life will place on our young people as they enter and progress through the labour market. We are a small country operating in a hugely competitive world. We need to get the best from our HE partners – and swiftly. We can’t let natural instincts to compete or to build our own institutions’ reputations get in the way of effective collaboration – and learning – from each other.


And business must also engage. Government must find the most effective ways to reach out and engage with employers. Those same employers must not spurn the opportunity to shape a better future for our young people and their ability to contribute to our society.




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