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Fixing The Soft Skills Gap - An Essential Focus For Talent Development

Traditionally, studies on “skills gap” (including by the likes of IBM and McKinsey) have focused on scarcity of candidates with the appropriate technical skills. However, career success and longevity are aligned with employees equipped with a broad range of soft skills.

Why Does This Skills Gap Exist?

Typically, job descriptions and resumes focus on what are commonly accepted as ‘tangible skills’ which are key to job roles. However, these formats almost always fail to capture the most winning skills.

Many successful employees are those with “invisible” skills – diplomatic and effective stakeholder management, successful navigation of office politics or influencing outcomes without actually being in a traditional position of influence. These powerful, but often overlooked skills, are incredibly important in day-to-day corporate life. Yet, no real focus has been placed on it from an education perspective or corporate learning perspective.

All of this is leading to massive skills gaps in workplaces. Some organisations attempt to address or account for such skills as part of annual performance reviews. However, they remain grouped under nondescript sub-headings with very limited weight in the overall process. Most regular office-goers will be familiar with questions such as “Rank yourself on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being the highest) on your ability to: Provide clear, objective, timely and focused communications to any direct reports, peers and managers”. These questions claim to perfunctorily address the existence and degree of critical soft skills but fail to adequately assess or effectively reward them. The result incorrectly classifies all employees largely based on their technical skills.

The Importance of “On The Job” Learning

What is common across these soft skills is that they are honed only through actual work experience. For instance, leadership skills are learnt “on the job” and no university degree (based largely on theory) can replace concrete and practical experiences gained from working. This is most evident in the preference for “homegrown” CEOs over outsiders. A study by AT Kearney shows that businesses that promote insiders into CEO positions outperform those recruiting from outside. Outsiders are seen to exhibit a higher failure rate and shorter tenure than homegrown CEOs with healthy internal networks and ability to navigate company-specific systems.

Another such skill is sales – selling skills are inherent and further developed by watching and learning at work. Colleges do not provide “Bachelor of Sales” degrees. Moreover, it is a job few want to do because of its competitive nature despite being incredibly important to any organisation. No company can survive without revenue coming in. Commercial skills and business acumen are hard to learn from frameworks or books but are best learned from people who practise them well.

These examples further underline the importance of a solid talent management strategy and highlight the reason for the massive skills gap across the market. In a recent report on workplace learning, LinkedIn looked at in-demand skills which were far higher relative to the number of people possessing them. Skills such as creativity (original ideas), persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and emotional intelligence ranked on top. Such studies are especially helpful in shifting the focus away from typical assessments of gaps in technical skills alone.

Need To Upgrade Internal Assessments

The skills gap is real. There is a pressing need for internal assessments to be upgraded to reflect a broader range of attributes needed to sustain and thrive in workplaces. Recognising and rewarding soft skills also ensures that those with a more wholesome personality are encouraged and promoted into positions of influence or indeed, given the opportunity to make the right lateral moves.

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