Softly, softly: skills gaps in the modern-day workplace

Companies frequently refer to a shortage of ‘soft’ skills among the graduate pool. Are universities failing, or can enterprise do more to ensure that first jobbers are ready for the real world of work?

Last year, Ernst & Young announced that it would no longer ask graduates to declare their degree classifications when applying for jobs. The gesture by the multinational accounting company was bold: academic achievement, while important as a show of determination and skill, is not everything.

“Academic qualifications will still be taken into account and indeed remain an important consideration when assessing candidates as a whole, but will no longer act as a barrier to getting a foot in the door,” said Maggie Stilwell, the company’s Managing Partner for Talent. 

The sentiment that graduates needed more ‘soft’ skills – teamwork, problem-solving, communication and creativity – had been building for some time.

Ernst & Young is one of the UK’s best graduate recruiters, taking in around 200 first jobbers there per year. Its internships and graduate programmes, as with those at the legal field’s ‘Magic Circle’ firms, have traditionally been based on academic merit, thus attracting high-achieving students.

“One of the key gaps is a real inconsistency in graduates’ critical thinking, problem-solving and research skills,” says Sally Jeffery, Partner, Education Practice, PwC Middle East. “The world of work is changing so quickly that technical skills they acquire at university or in their first job are probably no longer relevant as little as two years later.”

James Maughan, Director of the Dubai Business Internships programme (DBI), agrees. “Higher education is not preparing graduates enough for the job market, according to research. But companies can contribute to narrowing the gap.”

They could, for example, “convey the skills really needed for workforce success, have input in the design of the curriculum and allow richer opportunities for students to do multiple internships and work on real projects”, Maughan suggests.

“Maybe a three- to four-year course is not needed to produce graduates if they can demonstrate the competencies. The course periods could be shortened and the time used to do experiential learning.”

The DBI programme Maughan heads up is run under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai. Targeting graduates from China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and the US, the 10-month internship offers placements in leading corporations in Dubai such
as Jumeirah, Emirates NBD, Emaar and the Emirates Group.

Liqun Xie, a DBI intern at strategic advisory firm Falcon and Associates, who majored in journalism at Renmin University of China, says: “Real-world experience is very different from what you learn in textbooks. Only by putting what you learn in university into practice can you understand more about the complexity of the workplace. Through my DBI experience I am acquiring the business mindset and analytical skills that make my existing skillset more comprehensive.”

The programme allows companies to access top talent and benefit from the perspectives of international employees, while the interns access training, mentorships and cross-cultural business and consulting project experience, with the placement often leading to a full-time job.

The aim is to bring bright members of the global community over to Dubai, where they can learn business, further their academic knowledge and attain real work experience. Whether they remain in the emirate or go elsewhere, they acquire a greater understanding of the Middle East, cultural awareness being another
soft skill employers value.

Rising competition is partly what motivated the consultant McKinsey & Company to author a study in 2014 which claimed that while there were more people looking for work, employers in Europe couldn’t find the skills they needed. Findings were based on a survey of 5,300 young people, 2,600 employers, and 700 post-secondary education providers across eight countries that were then home to almost 73 per cent of Europe’s 5.6 million jobless youth: France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the UK. The European Parliamentary Research Service found that more than five million young people (aged 15-24) in the EU are unemployed – more than one in five young Europeans.

“While there are more people looking for work, employers in Europe cannot find the skills they need,” the McKinsey report said. “In the most effective interventions, employers and education providers work closely to design curricula that fit business needs; employers may even participate in teaching, by providing instructors. They might also consider increasing the availability of work placements and opportunities for practical learning. Larger enterprises may be able to go further by setting up training academies to improve required skills
for themselves and their suppliers.”

The consensus is that universities still play an important role. But education and enterprise should intertwine more easily to launch mentorship schemes, offer apprenticeships on campus and deliver workshops between lectures.

Michael-John Clemence is a former intern and current employee at a leading global bank in London, who completed a six-month internship in 2012. “When you’re at university the outside world can seem very distant,” he says. “There’s no magic transformation to become a business executive or manager – it’s a learning curve.” He sees education and workplace learning as equally important. “At university, you’re all working to the same mark scheme. A good internship will show you that you’ll get the most recognition in the workplace by doing things that you’ve thought of yourself.” 

Three years into his role, he says his internship provided an excellent preparation. “The requirements for my role are communication and interpersonal skills, taking initiative, problem-solving and commercial awareness. Problem-solving in business is altogether different than in education. An internship will show you that there is rarely a right answer. Everything is a compromise and success in solving a problem will be judged from several angles.”