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Soft skills present largest tech industry skills gap, says panel

A panel of experts speaking at Microsoft’s Future Decoded event in London said one of the biggest skills gap in the technology industry surrounds soft skills

Soft skills are some of the hardest to come by in the technology industry, according to a panel of experts.

Speaking at Microsoft’s Future Decoded event in London, several experts from the technology and education sectors said that alongside the technical skills gap, soft skills are also extremely difficult to find in candidates.

Mordy Golding, director of content at Linkedin Learning, said: “While technical skills are really important, the largest skills gap is really around soft skills.”

The technology skills organisations need range from Microsoft Excel skills to data science skills, but softer skills such as communication or negotiation are just as important, Golding said.

“If there was any specific tech skill people were motivated to learn, they could learn that very quickly,” he said, pointing out that softer skills are harder to learn and are often not included in courses.

Softer skills are becoming increasingly important for firms, especially in the wake of automation where even technology roles are becoming more creative, and technology adoption means different skillsets are needed as new technologies come in.  

But Golding also said looking for particular types of experience on CVs can be a box-ticking exercise for companies, so some candidates can get “lost in the madness of how business runs”.

“Part of that is people don’t think [to include] when they write a resume, ‘I can communicate very well’,” he said.

Schools are doing what they can to make sure people have the skills to tick these boxes, and Golding said an increase in people having mobile devices has also meant a spike in traffic during commuting hours where people are taking it upon themselves to learn new skills.

“There’s a lot of soft skills like tips on communicating or negotiating – that’s one trend we’ve seen where that access that’s available anywhere,” he added.

Technology adoption has also changed the way people are approaching work, meaning that in the new “gig economy”, continuous life-long learning is becoming increasingly important, and Golding said trying to embrace learning and change in an organisation needs to come “from the top”.

Lisa Harrington, managing director of the learning division at trading company QA Ltd, said there has been a recent trend of digital transformation in firms, with a focus on “culture, agile working and then leadership”.

Harrington agreed that softer skills such as leadership and the “ability to draw people together” are skills that are “definitely harder to develop”.

In the past, giving current employees new skills in the wake of transformation “has been for those people you really want to keep”, said Harrington, but now people can learn digitally, new skills are accessible to all.

However, once people have access to skills, even when supplied by an employer, retaining those skilled workers can become more difficult.

“There has always been skill shortages,” said Harrington. “It’s a mixture of growing skills from very junior apprentices and graduates, all the way through to retraining people as well.”

Highly skilled roles such as data scientists, cyber security specialists and business intelligence analysts are in high demand, but what firms require from technical individuals will change over time.

Using data science as an example, Harrington said currently you need extensive levels of qualifications to be “in the club”, but “not everyone needs to know Python to be a great data analyst”.

As the number of people with these skills are needed increases, the requirements for hiring for these skills will change “because it has to”, Harrington said.

She added that there should be a shift towards “problem solving-based learning” as opposed to certification exam-based learning to ensure people have participated in projects to use the skills they have learnt, as well as new ways of learning such as “virtual cohorts” and a “resurgence of podcasts”.

As well as a lack of soft skills and a technical skills gap, there is also a problem with many adults not even having the basic level of digital skills to properly perform basic tasks.

June Angelides, founder of Mums in Technology and chair of the Future Skills Programme, said firms need to work out how to give people a safe environment to learn new skills.

“You have the ability to just go on a platform and learn new skills, but it’s really promoting that curiosity and lifelong learning,” she said.

This includes giving people the confidence to “try out new things”, as well as the culture to develop initiatives such as inter-group learning sessions or teaching each other in lunch breaks through brown bag meetings.

Mentoring and providing role models is one way to give people the confidence to learn new skills, said Angelides, and many have also said that role models act to encourage those into the technology industry who otherwise wouldn’t have applied.

Role models and mentoring can also help to break down misconceptions about what technology roles are actually like and what types of people apply for them.  

“There’s always a lot of light shone on coding, I think there’s so much more to working at a tech company,” said Angelides.

She said firms should work harder to help people understand the “big picture” of the firm, and get people on board with the direction it is going. Making sure people know what technology roles involve can also be important.

“I feel like anyone can learn anything if you have a curious mindset and you’re given the freedom to learn,” she said.

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