So called "soft skills" such as people management and interpersonal communication used to get short shrift in the IT world. Interviewers rarely sought out non-technical skills as it is hard to link them clearly to any measurable business benefit. But this is now changing, writes Nathalie Towner.
Today, the principal judging criteria is still the candidate's experience and technical expertise, but the ability to work well in a team and communicate clearly is rapidly growing in importance.
According to a survey carried out by IT recruitment specialist Hays IT, candidates for jobs in both public and private sector organisations are being told to improve soft skills such as team-working and presentation in order to secure the best jobs.
"Employers have no hang-ups on the skills side," says Lee Chant, sales director for Hays IT. "If IT professionals do not have experience of the most up-to-date version of the necessary software, employers are happy to train them up."
Although employers are now more willing to contribute to training costs, they have become far more demanding in other respects. Technical ability alone will no longer ensure entry into the top job, as employers increasingly expect candidates to demonstrate good interpersonal skills.
"It is important to the company that they are the right fit and that they have team-working ability," says Chant. "Some companies regard it as very important that their IT staff are well presented and are able to speak to clients."
The change in attitude is predominantly down to the growing importance of IT professionals within the organisation. As IT has become more of an integral part of the business so has the need for its staff to acquire the necessary soft skills.
One of the key people skills for ITers is appreciating what non-IT specialists can and cannot understand. Chant cites as an example analyst programmers, for whom an important part of the job is making themselves understood to end-users.
"They need to be more involved in getting the initial spec, cutting code and, of course, interacting with the end-user," he says.
The survey also indicated that employers are increasingly demanding candidates with demonstrable project management and delivery skills. ITers who can demonstrate strong organisational and planning skills as well as adaptability will not be job hunting for long.
The financial and public sectors are particularly keen to gain IT staff with these soft skills.
Chant says the public sector used to be particularly guilty of only employing people who simply wanted to program all day. However, as the public sector has become more service-oriented the IT department has had to recruit a different sort of person.
To ensure they are getting the right candidate, more and more IT departments are using psychometric testing when recruiting and they are generally screening candidates a lot more closely.
"We are increasingly getting requests from clients for open days to meet candidates and carry out pre-testing before interviews, " says Chant.
"They want to know whether potential recruits are out-going and what their interests outside work are."
Research carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) provides further evidence that soft skills are gaining in importance across all industries. It found that 27% of employers are having problems finding the right people due to candidates' lack of people skills. It also discovered that soft skills are now fifth in the list of priorities for companies recruiting staff and they have been rising in status every year.
Imogen Daniels, adviser at the CIPD, believes the increased significance attached to soft skills is of particular relevance to the IT sector. "Soft skills are actually more important in a technical environment, particularly the ability to communicate," she says.
"Non-IT people do not want techie speak, and the ideal candidate will combine technical aptitude and soft skills."
Companies are desperate to find candidates with the right mix of skills, as these individuals can make a real difference to their bottom line. "In an increasingly competitive and global market the people and services a company offers can be the key differentiator in distinguishing them from the competition," says Daniels.
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