I’m regularly asked how to get ahead at work and what lessons there are from my own success in business.
The answer often surprises people. It’s not just about qualifications. It’s not about my education or background. I’d actually put my success down to something called soft skills – the vital abilities in areas such as communication, teamwork and time management that everyone needs to succeed at work and beyond.
I left school at 16 and couldn’t rely on my academic qualifications to get me to where I needed to be, so I always knew I had to rely on my soft skills. I recognised that I didn’t have the traditional platform available to sell myself academically, so had to fall back on my communication, time management and decision-making abilities. In my first interview at Alfred Marks, now Adecco, I had to plan and prepare really carefully to ensure that I could communicate confidently about these skills and stand out from the competition, proving that together they moulded a unique selling point – my work ethic.
Now that I’m an employer myself, whenever I am recruiting a new member of my team, I always think, “Will they fit in?”. This matters, because a person can have the most impressive work history and education, but if they can’t build on their essential soft skills, I’m not interested.
When I look around the workplace today, it is these vital skills that are making and breaking careers. Everyone – from chief executives of major companies to mums returning to work after bringing up their kids – needs them.
Now, new evidence underlines the hard value of soft skills. For the first time, research has revealed their value to the UK economy: £88bn today. This economic contribution is forecast to increase to £109bn over the next five years. Soft skills are an asset we can no longer ignore or overlook.
There are early warning signs that employers, government and educators are not supporting soft skills enough. By 2020, over half a million UK workers will be significantly held back by a lack of soft skills. The knock-on effect is that individuals and organisations will experience lost productivity, profitability and competitiveness. In an economic climate that is still tough, we can’t afford to let this happen. Three-quarters of employers think there is already a skills gap in the UK workforce.
And UK workers are feeling the impact. A new survey of over 2,000 employees reveals they lack the confidence and knowledge to sell their soft skills in order to get hired or get promoted. While they understand the importance of soft skills, one in five employees wouldn’t feel confident describing them to an employer, and over half have never included them in a CV.
Now is the time for change. This is why, working with McDonald’s and a host of business, youth and community organisations – including the CBI, Federation of Small Businesses and the National Youth Agency – I am calling for a wholescale re-evaluation of the value of soft skills.
The value I have always placed on them has helped me get to where I am today. It’s time for employers, government, educators, parents – everyone – to take action to recognise, promote and improve them. If we succeed, the prize is worth more than £109bn to the UK economy by 2020, and it will make a real difference to the careers and lives of millions of people.
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