Opinion: Why now is the perfect time for a skills shift

By Laura Baldwin, President, O’Reilly Media
While lockdown has expedited the shift, there’s been a need to reassess job skills for some time. Laura Baldwin, President, O’Reilly Media discusses...

The past year has hit the job market hard. Since February 2020, the number of employees on payroll in the UK has dropped by 820,000, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). And while we can’t minimise the impact this has had on individuals and organisations, there’s an opportunity for those still hiring to shift how they evaluate candidates. 

In such a competitive market, there’s naturally a greater emphasis on skills. Employers are looking for ways to filter high volumes of applications, so they’re more exacting than ever of prospective employees.

Consequently, skills that typically fall under the header of ‘desirable’ on any job description have come to be essential for success in many recruitment processes. But the issue with this prescribed view of the ‘perfect candidate’ is that it causes recruiters and hiring managers to focus too heavily on what’s on paper, rather than on finding the right person for their company.

Change has been a long time coming. While lockdown may have expedited the shift, there’s been a need to reassess the value and necessity of certain skills for some time. With many people using the extra time spent at home to evaluate the next steps in their career and learn new skills, what proficiencies should be prioritised?

The skills shift

We’re already seeing companies remove the bachelor's degree requirement from many of their engineering roles. There’s now greater emphasis on a baseline level of certain skills — where a person learned them matters less and less. 

One of the challenges with this shift is that, typically speaking, colleges and universities are focused on specific disciplines. While this makes sense in a theoretical context, the learning of a discipline doesn’t necessarily translate to the reality of work. Take languages for example: you may be the best in your class at reciting the conjugations of Spanish verbs, but if you can’t speak freely to express a point, that knowledge isn’t very applicable in the workplace. 

Companies want to know whether a candidate can validate the skills they say they have; certifications mean nothing if not backed up by experiential learning. There are many self-taught technologists whose degrees may not reflect the field they’re in but whose skills have been, and can continue to be, augmented on the job. People who have actively sought to learn a new skill because of a genuine interest are typically more passionate, more invested, and eager to prove themselves. All it takes for them to thrive is an employer who can provide the right company mentorship and learning resources.

The priorities of today

Certain skills and abilities have been undervalued by employers, despite being vital in the world of work. What's more, with technology becoming ever more important, even employees working in nontechnical roles must demonstrate basic skills. The challenge for both candidates and employers is knowing which skills matter most, how to prove them, and how to improve them. 

We use written and verbal communication every day, yet clear and consistent communication is regularly overlooked. The ability to debate a point and communicate it with clarity is essential in the professional sphere. If a role is client-facing, effective communication is even more vital. The reality is that many people associate poor grammar and communication errors with a lack of professionalism and expertise. Communication is the universal skill in today’s world. 

Similarly, teamwork is a given in the structure of a modern company. If an employee doesn’t work effectively within a team, they will struggle. Tech teams, for example, often work in squads that include product managers, architects, engineers, UX designers, writers, and even marketers. It’s the collaboration, creativity, and productivity of these diverse teams that enable innovation. While talent is crucial, skills can be developed. A good cultural fit, however, is what makes or breaks a team dynamic. 

Technology has penetrated all industries and specialisms. Most businesses have embraced this shift, identifying new opportunities through a digital, data-driven focus. Even the most technology-averse companies have transformed with tech, adopting new practices such as ecommerce or digital marketing. But this so-called 'age of reinvention' must also occur for people — in the technology sector and beyond. Many occupations, even those that aren’t 'technology roles,' now require basic technology skills such as experience with coding languages like Python, proficiency in specific software, or an understanding of analytics tools and how to apply their insights. The new age of work requires that staff are well-rounded.

A new age of skills

The skills we value are changing. New business focuses, increased teamwork and communication, and interdisciplinary roles have triggered a new age of skills. While job applications have typically been based on formal experience and certifications, there’s now greater value in having demonstrable, applicable skills and cultural fit. 

Going forward, greater emphasis on basic tech skills will prove beneficial for businesses. Providing practical, relevant training resources will enable employees to learn and develop in line with company direction and the assimilation of technology. 

While this shift might seem daunting to those in leadership and HR who are used to checkbox skills on résumés, it doesn't have to be. A more well-rounded approach to people, their passions, their existing skills, and their potential to learn on the job will empower them to grow. Building a culture of learning — and providing the resources to make it possible — provides value for everyone involved. 

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