Wednesday 18 February 2015 7:51 pm

Why the soft skills generation is an asset - ACCA Comment

It’s easy to criticise the young for their lack of business savvy but we may be missing a trick.

Our young people aren’t up to the job. They just don’t have what it takes.” It’s a familiar refrain, isn’t it? Hardly a day goes by without a high-profile business leader expressing grave concern that the young people of today do not possess the necessary soft skills to work effectively and efficiently in the business world.
And the latest employment figures would suggest that the situation for young people is indeed dire. According to the Office of National Statistics, there are currently over 750,000 unemployed people aged 16-24 in the UK. This is an increase of 30,000 on the last quarter, and takes the unemployment rate for this age group up to almost 17 per cent. It’s grim reading for anyone concerned with the future of UK business.
We see the same criticisms of our young jobseekers coming up time and time again. From an inability to hold eye contact at interviews to poor handshakes, business leaders tell us that teenagers are often unemployable because they simply don’t know how to behave in a business environment. This is important: according to the Development Economics research group, soft skills are worth £88bn per year, particularly in those businesses that rely on “face-to-face human interaction”.
It’s easy to be critical of the young, but are we missing a trick?


Soft skills are all about communication. How we work together really matters, and every business needs to establish a skill and talent strategy for their organisation that permeates the business, regardless of size or sector.
This means anticipating what skills are needed – now and in the future. Employers have a duty to ensure that their staff are skilled and re-skilled where relevant and necessary. We know now that soft skills are crucial, but does that term mean the same thing in 2015 as it did twenty years ago?
We tell the next generation that they must learn how to communicate with us, on our terms, to be successful. But young people communicate with each other far more regularly than any generation ever before.
Digital communication apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Snapchat carried around 50bn messages per day globally in 2014. Those of us who are a little longer in the tooth might not like it, but digital communication is here to stay.
Parents complain of children in isolation, squirreled away in bedrooms playing computer games, not speaking to another soul for days. But do we stop to consider the fact that the majority of these computer games are interactive, linking players to millions of others around the world in a 24-hour virtual collaboration?
In 2013, we rolled out Microsoft Lync, a virtual communication platform designed to ensure staff working in our 61 offices around the globe could speak to each other, share content and most importantly, work collaboratively despite being thousands of miles apart. Sound familiar?


Of course, face-to-face communication is vital to creating good business relationships. But we need to strike a balance between the best of the old, and embracing the new. 
Employers need to keep up to date with the skills revolution, and ensure that they understand what communication means in 2015. Because these young people aren’t just the employees of the future; they are our customer base, too. 
Recently, we asked a number of finance and accounting recruitment consultants what the hot skills of 2015 would be. The clear message was that employees today need to be all-rounders – blending technological expertise with fluency in data analytics, and possessing the communication skills to be able to turn insight into action.
This is because technology and communication in the modern world are increasingly coming to mean one and the same thing. Just look at the rise of the digital technology sector in the UK in recent years. We now have a young, vibrant industry founded on a complex mix of virtual and personal communication through collaborative working. 


Those seeking employment in accounting or finance, or looking for a promotion, need to tick a lot of boxes. Employability means being commercially astute, consultative and communicative, tech-savvy, possessing great interpersonal skills, strong analytical talents – as well as an engaging personality. A job candidate also needs to be able to demonstrate that they can drive business growth. 
It’s clear that the accountant of 2015 and beyond needs to be the complete package. And that’s where professional bodies like ours come into force: we are equipping the professionals of the now and of the future with skills that drive the wheels of business.
For their first job, it’s a massive ask for a graduate or school leaver to be expected to possess all the skills, knowledge, expertise and personal attributes necessary to get ahead. But if we can embrace the skills they do have and offer opportunities to develop other areas, then we can successfully maximise young people’s potential.
Let’s not forget that even established employees won’t possess these skills automatically. Not everyone is an extrovert personality – thankfully. Having a team of competitive extroverts can be tough to manage, but the same goes for introverts.


So professional bodies – in accounting, law or medicine – have an important role to play in ensuring that the talent pipeline is strong. And we have a responsibility to develop and sustain the necessary skills among those entering our profession. 
I travel frequently – 12 countries on four continents over the past year, and still counting. What I see in other countries, like Vietnam and Malaysia, is an impressive commitment to skills and employability.
Along with schools, colleges, universities, vocational bodies and employers, we are part of the skills equation. We all have to work with policymakers and think tanks to ensure what we are offering is relevant to maintain our position in the global race. 
But I am extremely optimistic about the future. I never cease to be impressed when I meet newly qualified ACCAs: young people who have potential, who are employable, who have the skills and knowledge to add value to a business.
So when it comes to that “handshake moment”, in-person or in the virtual world, remember context and culture. Business can be won – and lost – on the strength of handshake, a misplaced decimal point, and increasingly in the modern, digital world, an errant WhatsApp message or ill-advised photo posted on Twitter. 
Whatever the mode of delivery, a lack of soft skills really does affect the bottom line.