A campaign launched this week suggests that so called soft skills need to be taken much more seriously as factors for determining business success.
The term soft skills is commonly used and the terminology almost seems to place a value judgement on the attributes in question. But they can be generally defined as those skills that are difficult to measure. While it is relatively easy to test someone’s English language and maths skills, measuring initiative, good personal interaction and effective team working is much harder to do.
The campaign launched today is backed by big businesses – McDonald’s and Barclays among them. It draws on research by Development Economics which suggests soft skills could be worth £88bn a year for businesses that rely on customer service. We know from our own research with businesses that soft skills and attitude are often prized above academic or technical skills when it comes to recruitment. I believe they are essential for the success of our young people and we must create environments where they can be developed. Part of the approach in our further education colleges is to create learning companies where students put their learning into practice in live, commercial environments.
These environments, including restaurants, salons and gyms, require young people to work in teams, interact with customers and solve problems just as they would in the workplace. In fact these learning companies are work places as much as they are training grounds. They also help learners to stay motivated, develop technical skills and understand the commercial realities of issues such as productivity and profit.
Beyond this, I believe that education providers must focus on developing good listening and interpersonal skills in our young people. This is much needed at a time when computer interactions, rather than personal interactions, are the default. It is easy to say that a learning programme encourages teamwork, but if you don’t break down the elements of teamwork and model how to do these things well you are only going to reinforce bad habits.
One suggestion is to set a task where learners are put in groups of three – with one appointed as the speaker, one the listener and one the observer. Rotate the roles and encourage feedback about the experience. How did the speaker feel they were being listened to, what did the observer note about the interaction including body language and other visual clues, what did the listener do in response? This type of peer-to-peer learning can make a real impact in developing meaningful customer service and interpersonal skills.
As customers we all want to feel listened to, and we know that customer experience is king when it comes to brand loyalty. So if we want to ensure our young people add value to the organisations they join, and equip them for successful futures, we must help them to develop the soft skills that are so in demand.
Sally Dicketts Chief Executive, Activate Learning