Vital skills for today's professionals

A candidate's technology grounding is easily verified, but assessing 'soft' skills such as communications and innovative thinking needs a fresh approach

Gordon Brown’s March budget highlighted the chancellor’s intention for the UK to “lead the world in the new industries and technologies which will increasingly shape our future”.

There is no doubt that the UK IT services and software industry will play a huge part in that process, but it can only happen if the industry builds a skills base that is more relevant to today’s customer/business-driven environment than the technology-driven environment of yesteryear.

Quite simply, businesses in the IT software and services industry need to change the way they recruit, train and retain their workforce and, in particular, their graduate trainees.

In the past, such companies looked for strong technical skills in graduate recruits as a priority. Graduate trainees were more likely to be in a back office coding software than meeting clients to discuss business requirements from new technologies.

In my own company’s case, we recognised that the marketplace was changing and that we needed to examine exactly what its businesses and clients expected from graduate staff. We also looked at the client and work contribution competencies that could make graduates more effective more quickly and provide a skillset that is valued by its clients.

That meant a comprehensive review of the graduate programme, which now includes an emphasis on managing yourself, people skills, client focus and work contribution, as well as more traditional technical qualifications.

Focusing on people skills, graduates are encouraged to understand how to resolve conflict, listen to and influence others, actively network across the business, introduce new ideas and challenge upwards in a constructive way.

One of the challenges for a graduate recruitment manager is how to filter non-relevant applications out of the process. This is especially tricky when you are looking for non-technical potential in candidates, because checking the quality and accuracy of a piece of programming or code is easier than assessing whether an undergraduate will have relevant people skills.

A phone-based interview can play an important part in the assessment process. Once it has been decided that a candidate’s application may be strong enough to warrant a face-to-face interview, a phone call can ascertain their suitability.

It means candidates who have the technical prowess but do not exhibit the “softer skills”, can be weeded out before reaching the next stage.

Employers should also take a fresh look at assessment days, when candidates are invited to attend a group interview, and include written and verbal exercises that test the candidate’s ability to communicate and work with a group of strangers.

None of this means that technical skills are eschewed altogether. A solid technology grounding is required in all IT recruits, particularly in the areas of Microsoft .net, Java, Oracle and C++.

There is a growing realisation in academia that companies need people who see IT as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself; that technology is about solving problems rather than building clever systems for the sake of it.

But undergraduates have a clear need for coaching on how to build on that technical base with the new skills required for a successful career in business.

It is vital for companies who need this new breed of graduate to get out onto university campuses and help students develop these skills, instead of just “selling” their own brands at traditional milkrounds.

As Brown says, the IT industry will play an important role in the UK economy going forward. But it will not thrive without a steady stream of graduate trainees who can become the senior managers and consultants of the future.

It is incumbent on suppliers to work with academia to help nurture that talent and to adjust their internal programmes so that it thrives.

Gary Argent is head of graduate recruitment at LogicaCMG

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