In an article in The Economist last year, an American editor argues that “elders” are often responsible for millennials not reaching their full potential. The individual claimed that in the age of smart phones, better education, health and a more liberal society, “much of their talent is being squandered.” The opinion piece continued by stressing that millennials are losing out to the older generation when it comes to employment. Despite being “the most intelligent generation yet”, their crucial lack of soft skills presents a massive obstacle for success, leaving them unprepared for the workplace.

The recent push to get soft skills – communication, interpersonal skills, self-reliance, initiative and teamwork – on the agenda couldn’t be more timely. The population of people under the age of 25 is on the increase, and the competition for jobs is fiercer than ever. Soft skills can be the difference between success and failure on the job market.

In a PWC survey of CEOs, 73% of those polled named a shortage of skills as a threat to their business, compared with 46% just six years ago. According to the 18th Annual Global CEO Survey, 81% of CEOs are looking for a wider mix of skills amongst their employees than they have in the past as they look to build resilient and adaptable organisations that are able to cope with the uncertainties of the future.

Dragon’s Den investor James Caan ©Xero

In 2015, McDonald’s (in league with James Caan CBE, Barclays, and CBI) launched the Backing Soft Skills campaign. They found that 97% of UK employers recognise that soft skills are important to their current business success, and over half said that skills such as communication and teamwork are more important than traditional academic results. However, three-quarters believed there is already a soft skills gap in the UK workforce. Further evidence from the workplace suggests that practical and emotional intelligence account for two-thirds of the difference between an average and a top performer. Clearly, soft skills are important to success.

So, how can the skills gap be filled? 

In a white paper for the Imperial College London, Tom Blower, Head of Leadership Development at Black Isle Group, defines exactly what soft skills are and why they are important. He highlights the need to develop soft skills in students at school and in university BEFORE they enter the workplace:

“Our education system is not producing the right skills in young people. The result is inefficiency in the labour market through inadequate preparation for the world of work. Even business schools are being accused of continually producing ‘freshly minted’ quantitative geniuses but consistently failing to deliver the softer skills that employers value most. The dearth of skills is getting worse with a worrying forecast for the future”.

The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that by 2020 there will be a shortage of 85 million high and middle-skilled workers. In the UK alone, the Backing Soft Skills study revealed that over half a million workers across all sectors will be “significantly held back” in job opportunities unless their soft skills are improved over the course of the next five years.

The knock-on affect to the economy is unquestionable. According to the study, soft skills currently contribute £88 billion a year to the economy, particularly in businesses that rely on “face-to-face human interaction” to increase productivity and reduce operating costs. This is set to rise to £109 billion by 2020.

Many will agree with The Economist article’s stance that we need to work harder to help the young. As Tom Blower’s white paper states, we need to enable organisations to devise strategies that will establish soft skills as ‘routine practices’ in their people, and overcome the challenge of assessing them:

“The difficulty with soft skills is that, unlike hard skills, they are more ambiguous and harder to measure.  It’s much easier to determine whether someone is good at maths or spelling as opposed to has effective communication skills or a good work ethic.  So much of soft skills are subjectively assessed and context based. Arguably, in an age of constant measurement, our educational institutions have overly focused on hard skills as they are much easier to measure and, therefore, much better as a tool to quantify student progress. In solely focusing on the measurable and ignoring what differentiates people – their passion for learning, creativity, communication skills and working with others – we are preventing young people from realising their potential.”

Employers such as McDonald’s should be commended for their proactive approach in helping their staff develop soft skills. However, the change needs to start within the education system in order to form a solid foundation to prepare students for the workplace. Furthermore, employers must be prepared to provide more soft skills training for their workforce in order to attract the best talent and continue their development.

Only when soft skills are held with the same regard as academic achievements and technical expertise will the skills gap start to close and the workforce will be more balanced and successful.

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