Mixing up hard and soft skills training is best for business

In reality, tasks we carry out in a successful modern workplace require both soft and hard skills, Marc Zao-Sanders says

With the result of the forthcoming General Election and the UK’s economic outlook both uncertain, politicians and commentators continue to debate which policies and projects might stimulate and sustain recovery. 

One such debate revolves round the skills gap of UK workers, and its impact on business performance and the economy as a whole. This month McDonalds released the findings of a report which highlights the economic value of soft skills, such as teamwork, resilience, respect, people management and creativity. The report concludes that these types of skills contribute £88billion to the UK economy, and that a lack of training investment in this area will lead to a dearth of talent by 2020, and ultimately deliver a huge blow to UK business growth. Several other reports have been published over the last six months which champion the importance of training in hard skills, claiming instead that improving these skills will be the driving force behind UK’s economic growth. It seems likely there’s some truth in both arguments; that a mix of soft and hard skills training is the real solution to closing the skills gap.

The McDonalds report marks the launch of its wider campaign, backed by entrepreneur James Caan, to boost soft skills which it believes are vital for business success. That soft skills are important is clear – these interpersonal skills oil the wheels of business success everywhere. So investment in this area certainly makes commercial sense in order to drive business growth.

But while soft skills are doubtless necessary, they’re only part of the mix for success.  It’s also important to ensure that staff are equipped with basic workplace or hard skills too: analytical skills, financial discipline and accounting, facility with data and the software that can get to grips with and communicate it and so on. Training in these skills ensures staff are able to perform tasks effectively and efficiently, while also opening new avenues to innovation and improved ways of working.

Keen to understand and meet the challenges of workplace skills training in the UK, filtered.com recently carried out research (with Opinium) to see if we could find some additional angles on the nature of the UK’s workplace skills gap. Our survey of 2,000 employees revealed that staff who need key hard skills aren’t getting trained in them.  For example, two-thirds (66 per cent) acknowledged a gap in accuracy or “checking” skills but only 24 per cent had received such training; more than half (57 per cent) reported a need for IT skills but only one-third (32 pe cent) received this training; and over half (55 per cent) felt deficient in numeracy skills, while only 20 per cent received relevant training. It seems there is understanding and recognition amongst staff themselves that hard skills will improve their day-to-day ability to perform their roles. Digging a little deeper, our research revealed time (51 per cent) and cost (50 per cent) were the two biggest obstacles to receiving training – hence the divide between training needs and attainment. Focused training provision can bridge this gap and enable the UK workforce to successfully compete globally.

In partnership with Pearson, the CBI recently shared findings from a report which raised similar concerns. In this report, businesses highlighted a shortfall in the preparedness of candidates coming in to roles – over half have had to organise in-house remedial training in basic numeracy, literacy, and IT skills to compensate for weaknesses of adult employees, and more than a quarter run such courses for school-leavers.

In closing the skills gap, it’s important that business leaders, along with Government, recognise the breadth of training requirements in promoting a solution to this vital issue. Different industries and staff roles require different weightings of both soft and hard skills and, certainly, depending on what each staff member is proficient in, the requirements for optimal efficacy of each employee will also differ widely. In reality, tasks we carry out in a successful modern workplace require both soft and hard skills – the two are inextricably linked. After all, a “hard” deal closure goes hand-in-hand with “soft” negotiation! Businesses must therefore invest in both, together, and now.


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