Skill requirements evolving rapidly

Soft skills among entry-level, senior roles primary focus for HR managers: Report
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/01/2016

The skills employees need to succeed are changing at a rapid pace — whether they are entry-level or in the most senior roles, according to a survey of 90 Canadian organizations from Aon Hewitt and the Business Council of Canada.

Organizations are increasingly expecting more from entry-level employees in response to rapid advancements in technology and the potential for disruption, found the survey. 

“Companies are increasingly looking for young employees who can absorb information quickly, work in teams and solve complex problems,” said John Manley, president and CEO of the Business Council of Canada in Ottawa. 

The 2015 report also revealed employers are looking for entry-level employees with soft skills, not just technical skills, said Joe Blomeley, vice-president of innovation and skills at the Business Council in Ottawa. 

Soft skills can refer to a broad range of different capabilities and can be difficult to quantify, said Blomeley. 

“It’s the ability to be adaptable, to be flexible, to fit into the workplace culture, to take on multiple tasks. What we saw from companies across the board… was a need for multidisciplinary backgrounds — for people to have cross-functional skills, the ability to work in different areas within the company,” he said. 

This represents a significant departure from the traditional way organizations would function and recruit, he said. In the past, employees would generally stay in the same area of the organization and become hyper-specialized. But because of the market organizations are working in, the need to be adaptable has actually trickled down to employees. Organizations are now looking for people who can do multiple, different things, said Blomeley. 

Soft skills in demand

In looking at what employers are looking for at the entry level — the soft or non-cognitive skills such as communication, collaboration or teamwork — it’s really an early form of looking for leadership skills, said Neil Crawford, partner and Canada talent practice director at Aon Hewitt in Vancouver. 

“Who has the raw material to be a leader in the future?” he said. “Certainly, we’re seeing that jobs are getting broader, technology is making it easier to broaden jobs, so that those collaborative, communication types of skills are becoming more important.”

The other thing that’s happening that affects both mid-career hires and new hires is organizations are not as hierarchical as they used to be, he said. 

“They’re becoming more matrixed. So people aren’t just working with the person they report to or the team that they’re working on; they’re having to collaborate across the organization in different ways, and that’s why we’re starting to see these skills,” he said. 

“The impact that’s having on leaders is, first, there are fewer layers in organizations so leaders again are having broader jobs, and they’re also living in an environment that’s matrixed. So the skills they need to have to be effective leaders have certainly gone up a notch over the years.”

But soft skills can be somewhat difficult to measure, particularly in an interview setting, said Crawford. To do so effectively, employers need to use the right measurement tools. 

“If we look at organizations that are trying to get better at selecting and developing leaders, and trying to get better at identifying early their new leaders, while there are quite a few organizations that are taking advantage of tools, good tools to assess and select people, still in Canada we are probably behind where the U.S. is in terms of taking advantage of tools,” he said. 

For example, there are organizations with a whole suite of assessment and selection tools to help improve their batting average in terms of selecting the right people, said Crawford.

“But there’s still lots and lots of organizations who are hiring people based on interviews, based on gut reactions, instead of using the science that’s available to select people with the right personality traits.”

Soft skills are far more valuable or sought-after than they may have been in the past, said Mark Bania, area sales leader at CareerBuilder in Newport Beach, Calif., and former managing director of CareerBuilder Canada.

“If you look at how the jobs of 2016 have changed, there’s far more internal collaboration, regardless of the type of role that you’re in,” he said. 

“There’s so much overlap and so much integration internally between these different groups that employers today are looking for that soft skill that will enable internal conversations to be more productive and foster those internal relationships a little more.

“There’s definitely an increased need or desire for… some level of opportunity to upskill or right-skill candidates. So a lot of employers today, they’re looking for people they can bring in and skill to the position they have.” 

Integrated learning experiences, skill gaps

Employers are also keen on hiring candidates with integrated learning experiences such as co-op programs, found the report. 

“Co-op programs have been around for a long time, I think they’re just more pervasive now… the big shift has just been the percentage of people who are using them,” said Crawford. 

“In the study, one of the things (employers) were looking for was multidisciplinary skills. So, for example, maybe an engineer who has had some opportunity in a different part of the company to build some general business skills.

“Definitely, when people are looking at resumés, I think they’re looking for that type of breadth that’s proven that the candidate has spent some time in different areas.”

There are a lot of labour shortages in more technical positions, so employers are a little more open to and creative with hiring, said Bania. 

“In the past, it could have been as easy as you put up a job posting and you have enough candidates coming through that you don’t need to explore some of these other options. But the market has tightened so much that a lot of employers are looking to potentially use co-op opportunities to bring people in, teach them the foundations of the business, provide or enhance their skill set with what that particular job may demand.”

That’s particularly important when it comes to the staffing gaps many employers are facing for highly specialized positions, said Crawford. There are several areas identified in the report with skilled labour gaps. 

“IT continues to be an area where we think there are going to be future shortages,” he said. 

“But also some of these more emerging areas like analytics and statistics, quantitative analysis, that’s an area where there’s a shortage now and it will grow a little bit in the future. Also some very specialized (fields) like cyber security and risk management, those definitely make the list.” 

Employers are also facing shortages and challenges when it comes to filling leadership-level positions, found the report. Roughly one-half of respondents said leadership and management positions are the most difficult to fill. 

But those shortages are simply a symptom of the evolution of the labour market of 2016, said Bania. 

“Historically, people had been staying with the same organization and following the upward mobility structure of the past which is you stay with the company for a very long time, and you work your way up through a standard chain of command. But the lines have blurred so much… there’s so much more lateral movement that can take place within an organization.”

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