What Do Employers Want? – Transferable Or “Soft” Skills
More and more employers today are demanding transferable or “soft” skills? What are transferable or soft skills and why do employers find them so important?
You don’t have to go to school to acquire transferable skills. They are often basic skills like the ability to:
- understand and communicate clearly
- think and solve problems
- find and use information
They are the personal skills, attitudes and behaviours you need to:
- grow on the job
- work with others
- contribute productively
Employers in Canada talk about Employability Skills, i.e., “The skills you need to enter, stay in, and progress in the world of work – whether you work on your own or as part of a team”:
You may also find out about the essential soft skills for each particular occupation. Occupations are groups of related professions with similar duties and requirements (i.e. secretary, executive secretary, technical secretary, or geological engineer, geophysical engineer, hydrogeological engineer )
Transferable skills complement your technical expertise and allow you to use your “hard” (technical) skills and knowledge to maximum efficiency.
Unfortunately, many people think the technical skills are most important. But how good an employee would you be if you didn’t have:
- strong communication skills (spoken and written)?
- the ability to get along with others on the job?
- the ability to work well as a team member?
- personal management (e.g., positive attitudes and behaviours, organizational, willingness to learn) skills?
According to the Employability Skills, employers need staff members who can:
- read and understand information presented in a variety of written forms (e.g. words, charts, diagrams)
- write and speak so that others pay attention and understand
- listen and ask questions to understand and appreciate the points of view of others
- share information using a range of information and communications technologies (e.g., voice, e-mail, computers)
Suppose you are answering an ad that requires excellent communication skills the best way to convince the employer in writing that you have excellent communication skills is through your resume and cover letter. Make sure that:
- you have presented your employment experience and qualifications clearly and correctly
- your cover letter contains is focused and contains information that is relevant for that specific job
- you have someone check and proofread your documents before you send them
Now imagine that you are being interviewed for a job you would really like to get.
How would you answer this question? “Tell me about a time in which you had to use your written communication skills in order to get an important point across.”
Here are some possible answers:
One time I was asked to let the staff know about the work our committee had been doing. I prepared a PowerPoint presentation that summarized our achievements and included graphs that charted our progress. This report started the process of staff members “buying in” to the committee recommendations.
My supervisor asked me to put together a manual that our staff could use for routine maintenance and troubleshooting of our computer system. I kept track of the problems staff had been having, developed instructions for each problem and asked people to try them out before I finalized them. Having the instructions available reduced staff frustration and increased their computer knowledge.
My boss asked me to organize a special meeting of the staff. I sent an email suggesting several dates and times, scheduled the meeting, and developed and sent out the agenda. At the meeting, I recorded the minutes, which I then distributed to all the staff.
What if the interviewer wanted to know about how well you communicate verbally on the job?
Keep the following examples of good communication strategies in mind when preparing for this kind of question.
Think and talk about occasions when you:
- listened carefully and asked questions to make sure you understood and appreciated the points of view of others
- asked questions to clarify ideas/concepts you didn’t understand
- asked the right questions to get the information you needed
- gave instructions or explained something clearly
- expressed your opinions, ideas or concerns to others so that they understood you
- participated in and contributed to meetings
- spoke tactfully to resolve a conflict
Employers want to hire people who “fit in.”
By “fitting in,” they are looking for someone who:
- knows, and is enthusiastic, about the employer and the job
- shares the goals and values of employer
- appreciates the employer’s organizational structure and working style
- has experience working in a multicultural environment
- is able to work co-operatively
How can you demonstrate that you will feel comfortable in a particular work environment and that your new colleagues will feel equally comfortable with you?
The interviewer may try to assess your potential for “fitting in” by asking questions such as:
- By providing examples, convince me that you can adapt to a wide variety of people, situations and environments.
- Describe a time on any job that you held in which you were faced with problems or stresses that tested your coping skills.
- Give me an example of an important goal you had set in the past and tell me about your success in reaching it.
- Tell me about a time when your schedule was suddenly interrupted.
- Describe a situation when you went “above and beyond the call of duty.”
- Tell us what you did when your work or an idea of yours was criticized.
- Tell me about a time when you did not agree with an employer’s policy.
Match the following possible answers with the questions above.
One of my responsibilities was to keep track of office supplies. I noticed that we were using a lot of paper so I set up a system for distributing and reporting on paper used and found a supplier that was cheaper. Paper costs were reduced by 15%.
When I first started my job, our staff meetings were really unproductive. I decided to read about how to make meetings work better. I also took a course to improve my facilitation skills and volunteered to facilitate all our meetings. As a result, everyone participated more during the meetings and we got a lot more work done.
In my last job, I worked – for the first time – with people from all over the world. Since we were working as a self-directed team, we had to make sure that we agreed on our goals, were clear about our roles and that we understood each other. Because we came from many different backgrounds, we realized that a culture of respect was fundamental to our being able to work together. By being flexible and open to and supportive of the thoughts, opinions and contributions of others in the group, we increased our productivity by 10%.
Our executive director announced that the agency would close between Christmas and New Year’s Day. To make up the days off we would have in addition to the statutory holidays, staff would have to use vacation days. I didn’t think that was fair, since Christmas was not a significant holiday for many of us on staff. I suggested that the Human Resources committee do some research on how other organizations dealt with this holiday period and develop a policy that would recognize the diversity of our workforce.
Our team was under a lot of stress. It got so that I was dreading having to come to work each day. I found that if I began each day by “checking in,” – that is, by mentioning personal concerns – and ended the day by “checking out” or discussing issues that occurred during the day, I could leave personal problems at home and work problems at the office and experienced much less stress in my life!
One day I went to work expecting to be able to work on a report that was due the next day. But two people had called in sick and one was away on vacation. The staff members who were there discussed what had to be done that day and drew up a schedule for sharing the work. Although I could not spend the entire day at the computer as I had planned, I was able to able to get enough done that I could complete it first thing next day. I explained the situation to the manager and advised him that I would be submitting the report late in the day; he agreed to the new deadline.
When my supervisor told me that he was not satisfied with my work performance, I was very upset. I asked him to be specific about when and how I was not doing well. We then discussed what kinds of behaviour he expected and ways in which I could improve. We agreed on several goals that I would work toward, and established a meeting schedule and deadlines. This was a valuable experience for me. I learned a lot about my working style, my employer’s needs and my own ability to adapt and change.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, organizations moved toward a team-based work environment. Many positions now demand “the ability to work as part of a team.”
What is a team?
“A team is a group of interdependent (i.e. dependent on each other) individuals, often with different roles and functions, whose combined efforts toward a mutually shared goal are required for the successful completion of a task.”
Managing in the Age of Change
“A team is a small number of people with complementary skills (i.e. skills that go together to complete the set of skills needed to perform a task/project) who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable (i.e. each team member is equally responsible for successfully performing the task/project).”
Jan Kutzenback, Douglas Smith
The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High Performance Organization
What makes a successful team?
Each team member:
- knows, agrees on and is committed to accomplishing a shared goal
- contributes to a climate of trust and openness
- communicates openly and honestly
- values diversity as an asset
- encourages creativity and risk-taking
- can identify and correct their own mistakes
- trusts and depends on the other members of the team
- makes decisions by consensus (i.e., general agreement, majority opinion)
Begin assessing your own teamwork skills.
“Tell me about a time when you were required to work as part of a team.” How would you answer this common interview question?
- describe the situation and what the team was trying to achieve
- explain what you did to contribute to the achieving the result
- describe the final outcome or result
Let’s look at two possible responses to a question about your teamwork skills and experience:
An employer was interviewing two co-workers for a new position. Candidate 1 responded to the question, “Tell me about a time when you were required to work as part of a team,” as follows:
I was very fortunate to be assigned to a multi-disciplinary team of six. This team was working on the development of a new management information system. We decided to start by putting together an action plan that would accommodate all the members, use everybody’s skills and have the best chance of producing a successful solution to our problem.
I brought my strong organizational skills to the project. I really enjoyed the challenge of working closely with – and learning from – my fellow team members, who were from a variety of backgrounds and contributed different skills. My role was to make sure that we kept communications open, addressed difficulties as they happened and kept to the action plan and timelines.
To be successful, we had to agree on what information we needed to capture and the technical solution that would best meet our needs. There were a lot of different opinions, but we were finally able to agree on the approach we would take. Within six months, the system had been tested and installed, users were trained and we were getting the data and reports we needed. The team has kept in touch since we completed the project – it’s great to know who to go to when you need certain information or expertise!
Candidate 2 answered the same question this way:
I had to work on a team that developed a new management information system. We came up with a system that gave us the statistics and reports we needed.
Evaluate each candidate’s response according to the eight factors listed previously that make a successful team.
Here is a very tricky question: “Describe a time when you had a problem working with others on a team project.”
Try to answer this kind of question positively. If you have to talk about a time when things didn’t turn out as you expected or hoped, explain what happened, what you did to try to correct the problem and what you learned from the experience.
Based on the chart, what examples can you use to prove that you have the skills you need to work with others on the job and to achieve the best results?
According to the Employability Skills, the personal skills, attitudes and behaviours you bring with you into the workforce are fundamental to your ability to grow and achieve on the job.
Personal management skills include:
- positive attitudes and behaviours (e.g. demonstrating confidence in, and respect for, yourself and others; showing interest in others and in the work; taking initiative and doing your fair share of the work)
- strong sense of responsibility (e.g. setting goals and priorities; planning and managing time and resources; analyzing and controlling risk)
- adaptability (e.g. carrying out multiple tasks or projects; being innovative and resourceful; being open and responsive to change)
- an interest in lifelong learning
With whom would you rather work?