There is a skills gap and the future of work will require stronger soft skills, study shows

Home BusinessThere is a skills gap and the future of work will require stronger soft skills, study shows

Even though employers look for candidates with literacy, numeracy and digital skills, a new study shows social and emotional skills (SES) such as communication, collaboration, leadership, resilience and cultural competency are critical in the workplace and need to be nurtured early on in life.

By Radhika Panjwani* – June 2022

The study from the Conference Board of Canada and the Future Skills Centre gathered insights from 1,300 leaders from education, organizations, non-profits and other sectors, and was part of Conference Board’s Sounding Tour initiative that unfolded over a three-year period.

“Technical skills allow us to perform specific, job-related tasks; for example, to use a particular information-management system or to know and follow safe chemical-handling procedures,” said Erin Macpherson, a senior research associate with the Conference Board and a co-author of the report.

“However, during the Sounding Tour, we heard more about the general, transferable skills such as teamwork, computer skills and confidence, and how these are more in demand than the technical skills,” Ms. Macpherson said. “One leader from Calgary told us to ‘teach them soft skills, and technical skills can be taught later.’”

Happy women sitting across from a man.

The study’s authors identified and tackled five themes: The changing nature of work in Canada, reimagining postsecondary education, equitable recovery from the pandemic, social and digital infrastructure and essential skills.

Skills versus ability

Some employers in the study said new entrants to the workplace appeared to lack professional behaviour around e-mail communication and etiquette. Others employers said they prioritized traits such as strong communication, time-management skills the and ability to analyze problems in a digital context. They said that finding workers who had strong set of soft skills was proving to be a challenge. The unanimous verdict from the study participants was that the future of work will require a cadre of candidates with strong SES.

“We heard workers’ skill sets frequently do not meet employers’ needs,” said Jessica Rizk, a senior research associate with Conference Board and co-author of the study. “We heard the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic only intensified the need for strong SES. For example, individuals doing virtual work or school require strong self-management skills to stay on-track. Clear, pro-active communication is needed to build effective virtual relationships.”

“Soft skills are the “backbone of leadership” and there’s presently a scarcity of work-ready individuals with adequate soft skills.”

Alida Miranda-Wolff, CEO and founder of Ethos

Cultivating a lifelong learning mindset in response to new technologies or changing economic opportunities will help workers who want to succeed. Also, new graduates should identify and communicate to their employers that they would like to receive training and mentorship to develop these skills, Ms. Rizk said.

Emotional quotient: a barometer for success

In a blog, Alida Miranda-Wolff, CEO and founder of Ethos, and author of Cultures of Belonging: Building Inclusive Organizations that Last, says soft skills are the “backbone of leadership” and there’s presently a scarcity of work-ready individuals with adequate soft skills.

She says that in the constantly changing competitive landscape what makes someone successful today may not necessarily do so tomorrow. Ultimately, it’s someone’s ability to change, adapt and learn new skills that count, Ms. Miranda-Wolff said.

Her advice to employers is that when hiring, they should look for people who have the standard set of technical skills for the job, but comb through the applicant pool for people who demonstrate emotional quotient (EQ) and curiosity quotient (CQ). In short, hire the heart, train the brain.

Employers can evaluate those soft skills during the interview by asking candidates specific questions around a business or technical challenge, and how they solved it. Alternately, a structured format of interview where the interviewer poses open-ended questions, such as “How do you react when someone challenges your ideas?” may all yield useful information.

“Individuals with high EQ are less likely to experience stress and anxiety, which allows them to manage high-pressure situations and make consistently good decisions,” Ms. Miranda-Wolff writes in the blog. “High EQ also indicates strong interpersonal skills, which are essential to managing teams, collaborating with peers and colleagues, and building beneficial relationships.”

Nurturing soft skills

The Conference Board of Canada report unveils the need for strong partnerships between postsecondary institutions (colleges, universities, polytechnics, CÉGEPs) and industry, when it comes to addressing the current skills gap.

Participating in extracurricular activities, having summer jobs, volunteering, work-integrated learning (internships, co-ops, service learning, etc.), can all contribute to the development of SES development.

The authors said work-integrated learning opportunities such as internships and co-ops can help students be ready for the transition to the work force. Nimble training opportunities such as short micro-credential programs can help to more quickly upskill and re-skill individuals to be ready for changing and new roles. The report also calls for effective career guidance to be introduced in the elementary and secondary school years.

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About the Author’s

Radhika Panjwani is a former journalist from Toronto and a blogger.

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