Archived Insight | July 8, 2020

Wanted — Workers with Technical and Soft Skills

COVID-19 is driving a flood of changes in the workplace. The health crisis inspired a mass move to remote work that for many workers will continue after the pandemic is over. Across industries, employers focused on reducing inefficiencies and operating costs are accelerating digital transformations that were already underway prior to the health crisis. A January 2019 Brookings study estimates as many as 25% of jobs (36 million) are at risk for automation by 2030. That was before the pandemic. In a post-COVID world, the need to automate functions and adopt new technologies shifts into overdrive. 

While automation may displace routine tasks and jobs that are inefficient or dangerous, it also can create employment opportunities. Digital transformations feed a growing demand for new-collar workers individuals with both technical and soft skills. Soft skills include emotional intelligence, flexibility, and critical thinking. Organizations can prepare for these changes by assessing their workers’ soft skills and implementing new approaches to train, develop, and recruit the workforce they need.

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What are new-collar workers?

New-collar workers, a term coined by IBM in 2016, are individuals with the technical and soft skills needed to work in the high-tech field. Rather than earning a traditional degree from a four-year institution, these workers often acquire their skills from community colleges, vocational schools, certification programs, or apprenticeships. Technology, healthcare, and manufacturing are a few of the industries where new-collar roles are in high demand. Roles include cloud computing, database management, cybersecurity, and user interface design. 

Emotional intelligence and other soft skills in demand

Creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and emotional intelligence are the most in-demand soft skills in 2020, according to a January report from LinkedIn Learning. Emotional intelligence, also known as emotional quotient or EQ, is new to the list this year. EQ is the ability to interact effectively with others. Individuals with a high EQ demonstrate good judgement and empathy. They excel at problem solving and effectively handle stressful situations. They can also build strong, connected teams and find innovative solutions to challenging problems. 

According to a 2019 study from Harvard Business Review-Analytic Services, organizations that emphasize EQ are more productive and have higher levels of engagement than those that ignore this skill. Despite these benefits, the study found few of the organizations included in the survey (18%) have integrated EQ into their culture. It also discovered that employees and organizations differ in the skills they value most. While most employees place a high value on empathy and self-awareness, organizations are perceived to favor drive and mental toughness above all else. 

How can employers adapt to changing workforce needs? 

Work looks different today than it did three months ago and it will continue to evolve. During periods of disruption, an organization’s ability to adjust to changing market needs depends on the skills of its workforce. Assessing workers’ soft skills can reveal shortcomings and the need for additional training. Some methods organizations use to increase the number of new-collar workers in their ranks include:

Implementing eLearning programs: eLearning programs are ideal for soft-skills training. They can include videos and interactive content that increase engagement and retention of information. Training programs tailored to individual needs can focus on an array of skills. This could include leadership, time management, communication, problem-solving, and critical thinking. 

Building talent pipelines: Some organizations are creating their own talent pipelines to find candidates with technical and soft skills. In-house training programs, internships, and apprenticeships are all ways for organizations to develop the skills they need. IBM offers both a new-collar certificate program and an apprenticeship program to create new pathways to employment. Tech firms are also collaborating with community colleges to develop training programs and hire their graduates. Many organizations view candidates with basic technical knowledge and a two-year degree as more adaptable to job-specific training. 

Focusing on the next generation: The next generation of employees is a primary source for new-collar workers. Concerned about the high costs of higher education, Generation Z, born between 1996 and 2010, is seeking alternatives to traditional four-year institutions. More than half (55%) of high school students think of technical schools or apprenticeships in the same way as college, according to a 2019 survey from the College Savings Foundation.

By developing employees’ skills, adapting recruiting methods, and tapping into new pipelines, organizations can build the post-COVID workforce they need. Preparing for these changes is critical to meeting the challenges of a new world of work.

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