‘Soft skills’ keeping youths from opportunities in the labour market

Judith Nyakoa former Masinde Muliro University student washing cars and motorcycles at Shimalabandu area in Kakamega town. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

According to the 2020 edition of the Global Employment Trends for Youth report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), there are approximately 1.3 billion young people between the ages of 15 to 24. Their transition into the labour market {employment or entrepreneurship} has long-term impacts on their lives as well as on the socio-economic development of their countries, and this is a no brainer. To this end, it is, therefore, essential to establish ways to adequately equip them as they make their way into the saturated labour market, and monitor how they are faring on in terms of their effectiveness in discharging duties.

This with a view of identifying any gaps to be bridged in this massive conveyor belt of human resource, or what HR practitioners currently refer to as talent. Around 497 million young people, or roughly 41 per cent of the global youth population, are in the labour force. Of these, 429 million are employed, while nearly 68 million are actively looking for, and are available for work (this demographics is what is defined as the unemployed).

The data suggest that modern employers are looking for workers with a certain range of skills, including soft skills, baseline/general skills (e.g. writing and ability to work in a team); software skills related to computer literacy and technology; and specialised skills for specific occupations such as accounting and sales.  The skills required for entry-level jobs included communication skills, customer service orientation, teamwork, problem-solving, organisational skills, planning and proficiency in computer applications such as Microsoft Word and Excel.

Computer literacy

It is worth noting that, in terms of technological content, employers expect all potential employees to have general ICT skills such as computer literacy. It’s safe to argue that the increase in dependence on technology has widened the skills gap. This factor has made employers pickier and make it harder for students and their schools to have the ability to learn and teach new requisite job market skills. For instance, younger people defer to a quick text or snapchat rather than a phone conversation or a letter/email.

In a 2019 report, the Society for Human Resource Management found that 51 per cent of its members who responded to a survey said that education systems have done little or nothing to help address the glaring gaps in skill sets. The top missing soft skills, according to these members are problem solving, critical thinking, innovation and creativity, leadership, the ability to deal with complexities and ambiguities, and communication. These startling findings evoke the following questions; Are college curricula different from the years past? Are college students different? Has a reliance on technology robbed young adults of soft skills? Or have today’s companies—many of them startups and dependent on ever-changing technology—grown impatient and unwilling to wait out what was once a predictable, on-the-job learning curve?

Critical thinking, problem solving, attention to detail, strong communication {written and oral} and interpersonal skills top the list of skills managers find missing from job seekers’ personal tool kits. Overall, hiring managers find soft skills such as communication, leadership, self-management, and teamwork are missing in this new crop of workers. In the current age, the most valuable work skills are those that machines can’t perform, like soft skills, according to a survey by the Pew Research Centre of about 1,400 technology and education professionals. The survey suggested that young adults need to “learn how to learn” if they hope to adapt to a rapidly evolving work environment.

Exceptional skills

In today’s constantly changing and fast-paced global environment, employers seek out those stand-out graduates who are resilient and can build long-term relationships with customers, colleagues, communities and other business partners.  It is essential for all graduates to sharpen their soft skills when it comes to teamwork, fostering cohesion and communicating effectively. These are competencies that support the effective performance and career growth of graduates beyond their field of academic expertise. Such competencies are hardly offered in institutions of higher learning, and graduates are compelled to sharpen their aptitudes in their expertise in order to be successful in the job market.

A good number of graduates tend to depict exceptional skills such as critical thinking, teamwork, collaboration, self-management skills and research skills. However, other important soft skills such as communication; oral and written expression, leadership skills, language, technological and professional skills have in recent times proved to be vital competencies that graduates are missing as they prepare to enter the job world and as such, these gaps tend to put off prospective employers/HRs because they are afraid the prospective employee wont effectively perform their role, and/or the company will have to invest money in training them. Spending ‘unnecessarily’ isn’t good for the balance sheet, so the focus of employers is on finding people who are somewhat readier to start work and we expect these trends to continue as we start to enter a post covid world. The need for computing skills in all university graduates is very intense and continues to grow. But gaps in such a vital skill continue to be depicted. Moreover, there are certain subjects where computing skills form an intrinsic part of the curriculum. Graduates can undertake computer courses post-graduation to have extra added skills and advantages in the job market. 

Fresh graduates also portray gaps in intrapersonal skills such as resilience. How to handle setbacks, curveballs, disappointments, criticism, conflict, pressures of jobs and adapting to change in the workplace. They ought to embrace lifelong learning post-graduation and stay up-to-date on the emerging technologies and industry trends which is a key component of career resilience. By taking online courses, enrolling in professional development workshops and attending industry conferences, graduates can keep their skills sharp and be in demand. With the right skills and networks, graduates will be able to secure rewarding and fulfilling opportunities in the labour market by notching their value and being competitive, possessing vital skills and competencies. A strong focus on employability as part of the core business of a university and the ability of graduates to equip and equip themselves with the necessary soft skills will remain crucial in the coming decades. However, it seems colleges are graduating many ‘book-smart’ people with no real people skills, or no real-world use of their knowledge skills. What’s so great about a degree in something if you only know about it, and not how to teach it, use it, or understand why people want or need it? Adaptability, problem-solving, influence, drive, empathy and collaboration. What every employer has observed is that those things, aren’t being practised by college graduates.

In the US for instance, there’s a strong case for collaboration between business and education to bridge this skill gap. The approach of waiting to bridge an employee’s skills gap “on the job” is too expensive and comes too late. To create a reliable talent pipeline, businesses are working hand-in-glove with schools. Collaboration is smart for another reason. So far, with the exception of a few bright spots, efforts to address the soft skills gap have been siloed. According to a 2020 report by the U.S Chamber of Commerce Foundation, there are over 80 different pedagogical frameworks associated with soft skills by 2018. This proliferation undermines efficient and effective collaboration. There is an “urgent need for clarity” along with “coherent, clear messaging” about which specific skills a given program is meant to strengthen. Breaking out of existing silos will ensure that students reap the benefits of a sharpened education much sooner.

Businesses, educators, and workers are working together with shared purpose. The report observed that there were six million open jobs in the US by 2018 – 3.3 million of them being STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). A good step taken to solve this problem was the employee-school partnerships focused on “soft” and “hard” skills. The benefits of solving the soft skills gap through collaboration between the business and education sectors exemplify the concept of creating shared value. Shared value is created when companies recognise that there are tremendous opportunities for innovation and growth in treating social problems as business objectives.

Schools struggle to prepare students with the right soft skills for the labour market. Employers struggle to fill positions. Shared value is created when employers make it a business priority to connect directly with schools, developing skills and career pathways for students. Shared value is created when employers make it a business priority to connect directly with schools, developing skills and career pathways for students. Across the US, for instance, a growing number of companies are focusing on student education as a part of their business strategy. They see the value in equipping students with the skills for workplace success and, in so doing, strengthening their talent pipeline. Although bridging the soft skills gap and preparing students for the jobs of today, and tomorrow, is no simple task, there are bright spots that demonstrate how powerful collaboration between business and education partners can be.

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