Posted 13th March 2019

There are many pages of press devoted to the topic of skills.  Whether it’s an article trying to anticipate the impact of technology, or the plethora of coverage highlighting a current shortage of skills, talent wars with ever increasing costs or the decision of a company to reduce investment in a particular skill area.

Individuals and companies are both always concerned about skills gaps and relevant skills.  However, do we have a common understanding of what a skill actually is? There is plenty of advice for individuals wanting to increase their chances of job-hunting success, by adding popular hard and soft skills to their CVs. These are also what make up the much-loved keywords that are picked up and sorted by the algorithms, providing a good (or bad) “match” for a role, depending on whetherif you have the right skills. There are even people out there who are able to coach and assist applicants in understanding what skills they have to offer. 

What even is a skill? 

According to Wikipedia, a skill is the ability to “carry out a task with determined results” and this can be divided into domain general and domain specific. It goes on to explain that “general” skills would include “time management, teamwork and leadership” whereas “specific” skills would be used only for a certain job. (Think cake icing if you worked in a patisserie, tooth extraction if you were a dentist etc…)  That’s a pretty good description and probably reflects how most of us actually think about what we do.  We have a task, we have some knowledge of it, and we try for an outcome. The repeatability of this makes it a skill.   

But we do wonder if this is so obvious as it first appears. Because there actually is a hierarchy to skills, and that hierarchy has multiple levels. For example – receptionist skills. This can be broken down into answering a telephone, recording information, communicating face to face or via email, knowledge of the organisation and people working in it. Then there is the more physical aspect of welcoming people, managing the reception desk etc. This is a simple illustration that highlights a few levels, but there are many roles out there that have many more layers and complexity. You could argue that this is a convoluted way of breaking out skills, but it is actually quite valuable, and interestingly enough, very natural. As an individual, I know what tasks I’ve completed. I have answered a call, recorded some information and had a face to face conversation. I know I’ve done these things, I know how well I’ve done them and I know whether I have enjoyed doing them.  In fact, I can provide evidence of them and this often makes me feel like I have achieved something. I achieve at this level.  But if you ask me if I have good receptionist skills, I may not know whether I do, or don’t, as it’s a little harder to understand. And yet, this is precisely the level we tend to plan and recruit to. 

Mind the skills gap

Let’s take LinkedIn as an example – you can go in and select “Business Development” as a skill. There are many more deep and refined sub skills that combine to make this overarching skill, some of which you know you have nailed and some you feel much less sure about.  Understanding skills at the lower levels means that individuals are far more able to relate, achieve and develop these all with a sense of progress and achievement. Equally, these individual skills are eminently trainable. To identify the gap at this level, would mean that training would be highly effective, and organisations and individuals would be able to focus on the gap and filling it with knowledge, rather than trying to recruit at just a higher skill level that feels impossible to find.   

Having this structure enables transferable skills, making more people potentially relevant and certainly findable. It also means that the question of the future becomes a little less scary as you are only filling in small gaps in skills rather than having to create whole new skills people at this basic level, which seems daunting for both individuals and companies.  

The problem is that when we recruit, we will often only use these high-level terms for skills, and sometimes even one level higher. But the reality of a job vacancy, when we are looking to match talent, is that it is a record of the detail in the sub skills. This article from HBR talks about the skills listed in job specs as being a “set of guidelines” rather than a list of skills that are must-haves, with the caveat “it is important…to have at least some of the skills a job requires up front.”

So, back to our articles that we referred to in the beginning about shortage of skills (and we are seeing an increasing trend to talk about this in relation to Brexit at the moment) – when we talk about skills shortages we’re actually talking about not being able to find “good receptionists.” The reality is though, that probably a lot of the CVs we have in front of us will have buried in the detail, phrases about being able to communicate well at all levels or being organised and attentive to detail. Which of course are all part of the subset of skills that a “good receptionist” will possess. 

Bridging the gap

How we articulate our skills, particularly in relation to jobs that we can do or would like to do as part of our career progression is very much down to the accuracy of the recruiter in being able to match the two different levels of skills detail. Unfortunately, it’s often down to the keywords and algorithms that we talked about earlier too. Technology advancements in HR and the progressive use of AI is a step towards refining this issue, but it is about the candidate and the recruiter having absolute control over how skills are articulated and picked up. Optunli is a new platform that has been developed to do just this. T, the company is recognised as a pioneer in the application of AI so that the ultimate intelligent matching of skills can take place, with open dialogue for both sides.

Teresa Fox
Post author:Teresa Fox

Teresa Fox is a Co-CEO and Founder of Optunli.

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