Want a job? Bring people skills and problem solving to the interview table

Recent graduates looking for work take note: if you relate well to people and take initiative to solve problems, you’ve got the edge over other applicants.

And, according to new research from Brock University’s Niagara Community Observatory (NCO), if you can show the interviewer how you’ve used these skills effectively in the past, it’s likely you’ll get the job,

Relationship-building, problem-solving and other ‘soft skills’ — along with attributes such as adaptability, enthusiasm and a desire to learn — are critical factors when potential employers assess recent graduates, says the NCO’s brief, “Is there a skills gap? Understanding what Niagara employers are looking for in recent graduates.”

The NCO and Brock Researcher Kate Cassidy, the brief’s author, released the findings Tuesday, Feb. 28 at the University. Panelists included Mario De Divitiis, CEO of Niagara Workforce Planning Board, Rachel Crane, Chair of NEXTNiagara and Jeremy Bout, Executive Producer of Edge Factor. Mishka Balsom, CEO of the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce and Regional Chair Alan Caslin also addressed the crowd.

“Candidates tend to focus on the technical or hard skills required for a role and brush over the soft skills listed in the job ad,” said Cassidy, director of Community Learning and Youth University at Brock. “Educational qualifications and experience are still important, but having these alone won’t be enough to stand out and succeed.”

To determine how Niagara employers define “career readiness,” Cassidy and her team interviewed 44 professionals from 39 large and small organizations across a wide variety of sectors.

The research team asked employers what they look for in entry level hires, whether they find young applicants to be adequately prepared for work, and what needs to be done to prepare the workforce of the future.

‘Hard skills,’ technical expertise or content knowledge, are important and desirable. However, employers report that they look at the ‘whole person’ when making hiring decisions, and it is often soft skills that set the successful candidate apart from the crowd.

Employers are also interested in experiences where young job-seekers have developed and used the hard and soft skills that are relevant to the job they are applying to.

But ‘experience’ in this case doesn’t necessarily have to be past professional employment. Activities employers value include “volunteering, athletics, participation in clubs, living overseas, general employment and life-changing challenges that brought about personal growth,” says the brief.

Despite the importance of soft skills, the Niagara employers surveyed indicate they are seeing a soft skills gap in many of the job applicants they encounter.

“They told us many young people cannot convincingly illustrate the presence of skills with good examples from experience and cannot talk about how specific soft skills will enhance their performance in the role they are applying for,” says the brief. “Other research has also noted this inability to adequately discuss soft skills as well.”

The brief recommends measures to develop or enhance soft skills development, including:

  • Extra-curricular programs, project-based activities, service learning and other programs in schools that intentionally focus on developing reflection and soft skills in youth
  • Encouraging parents and families to allow children to face challenges where their personal, social and thinking skills are tested, as well as modeling and discussing soft skills with children
  • Offering company mentorship programs that focus on and teach soft skill development
  • Setting intentional soft skill development goals with young employees to help them practise and master specific skills
  • Building general awareness of the importance of soft skills development to families, youth, educators and employers

“Employers want applicants to be able to speak comfortably about their learning from experience, and this hinges on taking the time to continually reflect on both the hard and soft skills that were used in experiences.” said Cassidy.

Being aware and intentional about soft skills development will help job candidates identify soft skills and be able to talk about their role in new jobs or challenges.

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