From education to employment

Competing for Softer Skills

David Falzani MBE CEng

In preparing young people for the workplace the education system is well proven in its ability to convey technical skills and capabilities. However, perhaps there are still opportunities to increase the appreciation and development of soft skills.

Back in the 1980s, improved team working started to become a leading business topic, whereby companies and organisations would succeed by employees working better together – teams and increased cross functional collaboration were the new way to solve an ever increasing complex set of challenges, particularly as the information revolution changed the way we all worked.

Leading practioners such as Meredith Belbin showed that the performance of a team is directly linked to having a diverse set of personalities and profiles and as well as effective communication and collaboration skills. These are sometimes referred to as soft skills. More recent publications such as Emotional Intelligence (EQ): Why it Can Matter More Than IQ have further extended the understanding of soft skills and also highlighted how it is increasingly recognised as having a crucial role in the workplace.

Evidence shows that employers recruiting from HE and FE greatly value team and communication skills, particularly amongst those with a technical or scientific training – where those skills sometimes don’t have an opportunity to develop during the busy curriculum. They report that those individuals tend to be more productive, more able to quickly integrate into operations, and a better company ‘fit’.

A good way for students, as well as job seekers, to broaden their soft skills is through business competitions. These are increasingly being run by HE and FE providers. Overall, there’s a rising tide of activities around enterprise – partly due to the increased interest in start-up companies, TV shows such as Dragon’s Den/The Apprentice, and the new phenomena of Kickstarter and Indie GoGo.

Business competitions often encourage teams to come together to solve a particular problem, or analyse and then describe an opportunity. They certainly require a well considered statement of business merit. The act of bringing different skills together and then being able to articulate the idea in a business context offers a way to improve both social and communication skills.

Ideally these competitions offer access to a mentor or coach who can help the student develop their thinking from the customer’s perspective and challenge the way that the proposition is being framed for the audience. This act of putting themselves in the audience’s shoes, or indeed in the customer’s shoes, further helps the individual develop an appreciation for different styles of communicating.

Competitions that encourage teams to form enjoy the extra benefits associated with this more collaborative environment. Teams have to self-organise, delegate responsibilities and find ways to work together – often reconciling different views and opinions. Multi functional teams can be even more beneficial, with differing concepts of what constitutes ‘the right answer’. The enriched dynamics of the team offer an opportunity for people with different natural styles and viewpoints to reconcile those whilst working towards a common goal.

The charity Engineers in Business Fellowship is looking to sponsor 25 new business competitions this coming year. It provides a cash prize fund and PR support to HE and FE institutions that are running business competitions, particularly for students studying an engineering related subject. It also provides access to ongoing mentoring support.

Past participants have described how the act of preparing and presenting their business case has helped them develop personally, and also helped them to differentiate themselves in the recruitment market. Some have gone on to start new businesses, whilst others have gone into more traditional job roles in large organisations, but both groups report better student outcomes – benefits from the competitions and what they learned.

The rising tide of enterprise. The softer aspects of business. The enthusiasm of students. It’s a potent mix to improve our national EQ and help the economy at the same time.

by David Falzani MBE CEng and Paul Kirkham

About David Falzani: A serial entrepreneur and business consultant, Honorary Professor at Nottingham University Business School, and President of the Sainsbury Management Fellowship – which has given away over £8m in scholarships to young engineers to broaden their commercial skills.

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