What skills do employers look for in candidates?

What exactly are soft skills and how can you prove to an employer that you have them?

Employers are keen on candidates who have strong transferable personal or “soft” skills. Photograph: iStock

Employers are keen on candidates who have strong transferable personal or “soft” skills. Photograph: iStock

 

You might not be a qualified engineer or have a finance degree but, for many employers, it doesn’t really matter. Today, employers are often more concerned about hiring someone with a degree - any degree - as long as they have strong transferable personal or “soft” skills.

But what exactly are soft skills and how can you prove to an employer that you have them?

Dr Mary Collins, a chartered psychologist and professional executive coach, says that soft skills might be better described as “human skills” or “emotional intelligence skills.”

“In the increasingly digital age of work, these will increase in importance,” she says. “In law or accounting forms, much of the work is being transferred to artificial intelligence or algorithms, but companies still need graduates with effective communication, collaboration, negotiation, influencing and client relationship skills - none of which can be replicated by a computer.”

Reflect on your skills

Reflecting on these skills means sitting down and thinking about who you are, what you value and what you have learned - not just in school and college but also in your personal life, through work experience and your involvement in clubs and societies.

“If you have been brought up in the family business, you may have picked up the skill of how to deal with customers,” says Collins. “If you are a high-feeling person, you may tend to be higher in empathy. If you were in clubs and societies in college, you may have developed leadership or event planning skills. Once you have identified these skills, you want to consider: are they transferable and usable for the job I am applying for?”

It’s important to be honest with yourself. “ViaCharacter.org is a useful online tool for understanding your strengths and how they might relate to your skills. It’s also a good idea to get feedback from people who know you: what do they think your strengths are? Ask family, critical friends and mentors.”

The skills employers want

IrishJobs.ie, one of the biggest recruiters in Ireland, asks employers to identify the key skills they want job applicants to have. As a result, IrishJobs.ie has been able to filter over 9,000 of the most in-demand skills across a range of jobs and sectors.

Over the last three years, the most in-demand skill is communication. This is followed, in order, by sales, project management, customer service, engineering, construction, management, Excel, manufacturing, administration, ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants), finance, IT, compliance, teamwork, accounting, GMP (good manufacturing practice), attention to detail, interpersonal skills, SAP (system application and product in processing), design, Java, SQL and quantity surveying.

When you zoom out to hone in on the most sought-after “soft skills” - that is, general skills that are developed through education, work experience, volunteering and life - we see the list read as follows: communication, sales, project management, customer service, management, teamwork, attention to detail, interpersonal skills, leadership and problem-solving.

Proving your skills

Jane Lorigan, CEO of Saongroup, the parent company of IrishJobs.ie, says that it’s not enough to simply list your soft skills in an interview: you need to prove that you have them. “You can prove your more technical or professional skills because you have the qualification,” she says. “But if you say that you have great problem solving skills, you need to have examples ready for your application and interview. So you might tell a recruiter about a time that you had a problem and how you went about solving it.”

Proving your skills is all about impact, says Collins. “Weave them into your experience and show how you made an impact in the workplace. You may not have the extensive work experience of, for instance, a client relationship manager, but perhaps you were involved in organising a college event that 300 people attended.”

Your key skills should also be highlighted on your CV, says Lorigan. “This is especially important if, as a graduate, you don’t have a lot of work experience. So it could be really good communication skills and the ability to interact and work with people in a polite and collaborative way, which you picked up working in a summer retail job.”

Understanding skills

Teamwork is closely related to communication skills, and it includes self-awareness and an ability to understand team dynamics and different personality types, says Lorigan.

“With regards to attention to detail, every functioning team needs at least one person with a level of thoroughness and accuracy to accomplish a task, make sure timelines are met and the information is accurate and consistent with numbers right. Leadership, meanwhile, is all about decision-making, conflict resolution and a willingness to supervise and take ownership.”

Why does she think communication is the key skill that employers want? “Because even if you are working remotely, you have to work with a team of colleagues, suppliers or customers. If you can’t communicate properly, relationships break down and that is the number one source of problems and conflicts in work situations. In practical terms, having good communication skills means being able to listen and absorb information, ask questions and listen to answers, interact politely and clearly, and convey a message. It means writing concisely and with clarity and persuasion, being able to demonstrate where you have been persuasive and examples of negotiation skills. It means public speaking - which most students will have done in their coursework (through group work) - reading body language and situations, and emotional intelligence. It is something that is developed through age and experience.”

Panel: Autism in the workplace

Lorigan is conscious that these skills come easier to neurotypical people and that neurodiverse or autistic people may lose out here. IrishJobs.ie is working with autism charity AsIAm to provide support and information for employers.

Research evidence suggests that there is a higher rate of unemployment or underemployment among autistic people, who may struggle with the recruitment process - particularly the interview process.

“We are working with companies to make them more conscious of an autism-friendly interview and workplace,” she says. “For an interview situation, that means being clear and upfront about where the interview will be, what the process is and who will be there. It means not changing things at the last minute. And it means not hitting the person with multiple questions, giving them time to process the information and time to respond. A bright room or lots of ambient noise can throw a really strong candidate.”

* For more information, see AsIAm.ie

How do your skills relate to our needs?

Sigmar Recruitment has compiled a list of some of the key skills-based questions that candidates might be asked in an interview.

When you’re applying for a job, first review the job description carefully and identify the skills and traits likely to be assessed. Next, identify the situations and experiences that you will refer to in the interview to demonstrate these skills and traits. Competency focussed, well-structured answers are extremely powerful and will win you the interview.

The STAR model will provide a structure to your answers:

Situation - describe a situation or problem that you have encountered

Task - describe the task that the situation required or your ideas for resolving the problem

Action - describe the action you took, obstacles that you had to overcome

Results - highlight outcomes achieved

Knowledge of the Organisation and Role

What are your motives in applying to this organisation: Were they well thought out? Do you know enough about this work area and this organisation to be clear about how your skills fit into it?

* Why did you apply for this position?

* How would you measure your success or failure in this job?

* What skills and personal qualities are essential for success in this role?

* How do you plan to keep up with developments in your field?

Influencing or Persuading Others

You may have strong verbal skills but can you influence another person to change their thinking or take some action - perhaps a colleague follows your advice or a client decides to buy a service or product.

* Tell me about a time when you were able to change someone’s viewpoint significantly.

* Tell me about a time when you were asked to do something that you disagreed with.

Interpersonal and Team Skills

Employers need people who are socially competent. The desire to build and maintain relationships in and beyond the workplace is critical. Many workplaces function on the basis of project teams. These teams are task oriented and short lived. Those who are highly collaborative and cooperative are most likely to thrive in this type of environment.

* What experience have you had working on a team?

* What skills and personal qualities have you contributed to the teams you have been part of?

* Tell me about a time when you used tact and diplomacy.

- Courtesy: Sigmar Recruitment/ SigmarRecruitment.com