There at least two sides to the skills shortage problem that currently faces Britain’s startups and scaleups. There is – as has been widely discussed – a real danger that digital economy businesses, in particular, will struggle to find people with the right technical skills, unless and until the U.K. government comes up with an immigration policy that aligns with the needs of the economy. It’s simple maths really. There isn’t enough local talent to feed the burgeoning tech economy.
But that’s just part of the story – at least according to a survey by Tempo – a recruitment company that specializes in finding staff for fast-growth companies. Tempo’s research found that employers are actually more worried about a deficit of so-called soft skills. These are the skills that aren’t linked to a particular job function – such as coding – but that nonetheless have a major impact on company performance. Essentially, we’re talking about the ability to communicate effectively, solve problems on the fly or simply be a bit creative or flexible around working practices.
Breaking it down to numbers, 54 percent of those who responded to the survey said they struggled to find candidates with a necessary mix of soft skills and 51% admitted this was damaging business growth.
“There’s a skills shortage plaguing British scale-ups — and it’s not the tech one which gets a lot of airtime,” says Tempo CEO Ben Chatfield.
So what does this mean in practical terms? Well, rather gamely, 32 percent of those taking part in the survey said poor staff skills had contributed to serious issues, such as the loss of a customer. Around the same percentage cited tension between staff members and lower productivity as knock-on effects of a soft skill deficit.
Perhaps none of this should come as a surprise. Hard skills are easy to quantify. Whether a candidate is applying for a job as a systems engineer or a sales manager, his or her skills are pretty easy to pin down through qualifications, evidence of track record and experience and references. Given that so many hires are based on a half-hour interview, it can be pretty hard to detect if a job seeker is, say, cool under pressure or comfortable in a situation where solving is required.
But how much of a problem is this really? Take the most prized soft skill as identified by Tempo – namely communication. Surely, the ability to communicate well is all too easy to pick up at the interview stage. So could it be that in citing soft skills shortages, employers are (in some cases at least) simply making excuses for their own hiring errors?
Ben Chatfield, founder of Tempo doesn’t think so. And as he points out, the ability to come across well in an interview situation represents just one facet of well-honed communication skills.
“In an interview, you’re seeing face-to-face interaction,” he says. “But there’s more to it than that. There’s communication via email or messaging apps. There’s the way that people communicate with their peers. There is the way that people feedback to their managers.”
The survey indicates that employers do take soft skills into account when hiring, with more than 60 percent saying they would turn down candidates on the strength (or rather the weakness) of their interpersonal abilities.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Here’s the tricky part. Anyone who’s ever spent any time in a workplace probably knows how – to put it more broadly – personality traits impact on the working day. Some people are great at working with their peers, others less so. Some employees flag up issues or problems, others try to keep them hidden. And while many people enjoy learning new skills or new ways of working, there are always those who prefer to stay within their swim lanes. Managing the range of personalities within a team has always been a challenge.
The question is – taking personalities into account – can anything be done to develop skills, such as good communication or better problem-solving? The answer to that question is probably yes. Soft skills can be taught. However, according to the survey, this is a neglected area. Only 10 percent of those questioned said they were spending more on teaching interpersonal than technical skills.
Maybe the answer is to focus more on soft skills during the interview/recruitment phase Chatfield suggests employers should pay less attention to track record and focus on candidates who have the right attributes for the job in hand – now and in the future. “Employers tend to start with past experience. They should focus on finding the mix of skills that they need,” he says.
Again, that doesn’t necessarily help with the issue of identifying soft skills through conventional recruitment measures. One way forward – and this can be facilitated through Tempo’s recruitment platform is to make quick hires but do so on a temporary basis, essentially allowing an employer to assess a new recruit in a real-world situation. Good for employers perhaps, but not necessarily something that will appeal universally to candidates. However, Chatfield points out that candidates can also essentially trial their employers and return to the platform to find a new position if things don’t work out.
More broadly, however, if soft skills are really an issue for fast-growth companies, more thought should probably be given to more effective recruitment and ongoing training and personal development.