To be successful, young workers need to develop a lot more than job-specific knowledge, experts say. Of the so-called soft skills needed for success in the workplace, communication skills are particularly critical.
Communication skills are the most important and the hardest to find, according to China Gorman, CEO of CMG Group, a talent management consultancy. “Being comfortable one on one with customers, colleagues and bosses means being comfortable with yourself and confident in your abilities,” she told SHRM Online.
“Being able to communicate in writing is critical to how far young workers are going to advance,” according to Mark Bugaieski, SPHR, HR director for Illinois CancerCare. Whether someone is sending an e-mail or instant message or writing a blog, they are being judged on their communication ability, he said. “And it must be good to attain success.”
Verbal communication skills were identified as the top “soft” skill sought by employers when recruiting college graduates, according to the Job Outlook 2011 survey, released Dec. 8, 2010, by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).
The ability to speak and write well will make a young person stand out, Gorman agreed, and will make such individuals more competitive in the job market. “Being able to clearly articulate—verbally and in writing—your ideas and results to your boss, your customers, your peers and other colleagues will mean the difference between career growth and career stagnation.”
NACE’s Job Outlook 2012 survey, released Nov. 17, 2011, revealed that employers look at candidates’ resumes for evidence of written communication skills, leadership and problem-solving skills and a strong work ethic.
Help Is Available
To help young workers develop communication and other essential skills for the workplace, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) developed Skills to Pay the Bills: Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success, a collection of career development exercises and activities available free online.
The publication, released Feb. 9, 2012, focuses on six skill groups:
- Problem solving/critical thinking.
An explanation of each skill is included, as well as a series of scenarios and related activities intended for use by groups of young people learning in a facilitated setting.
Experts agree that the resource covers key areas for young people to develop.
In addition to communication, Gorman highlighted two other skill groups on ODEP’s list that she finds especially important to those working in her industry:
- Problem solving/critical thinking. “Every manager wants employees who use their heads,” she told SHRM Online. “And every manager wants a work group that is efficient and produces expected results. That means we want employees who are always thinking: ‘How can I do this better, faster, cheaper? How can I exceed customer expectations?’ ”
- Enthusiasm/attitude. “Come to play. Come to contribute. Come to win. And act like you like it,” Gorman said.
“Attitude is everything,” agreed Sabrina Steinback, vice president of the South Puget Sound Chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management. But she said age doesn’t matter when it comes to getting the job done. “It is all about having the right attitude, ability to learn, willingness to be flexible to changes and [desire] to perform the task to the best of the employee’s ability,” she explained.
Peter Phelan, senior vice president, human resources, at MediaMath, an advertising technology firm, agreed that problem solving and critical thinking are key skills for those in his industry because they are so often in “uncharted waters.”
Yet Bugaieski pointed out one challenge for those teaching and learning about soft skills; he observed that enthusiasm and attitude “can be coached to a certain extent but not ‘taught’ per se.”
Judy Lindenberger, president of The Lindenberger Group, an HR consulting and career coaching firm, placed problem solving/critical thinking skills at the top of her must-have list for young workers. High school students in honors classes often have opportunities to develop these skills as they work on group projects, she noted, but the same opportunities might not be available to others.
Yet Lindenberger said she sees plenty of young people who need to work on their attitude and professionalism. “Students often come to workshops I present with their cell phones on and leave frequently to take personal phone calls,” she said. She makes it clear that such behavior is unacceptable.
“Dressing appropriately, showing up on time and networking with co-workers are all crucial to finding and keeping a job,” said Kathy Martinez, assistant U.S. secretary of labor for disability employment policy, in a statement. “For many young people these skills are not intuitive. We hope educators, human resource professionals, job clubs and faith-based organizations will use the curriculum to help our youth build the skills to succeed in the workplace.”
Available in English and Spanish as well as large print, Braille, audio tape and disc, Skills to Pay the Bills was field-tested by youth service professionals and students across the country.
Other Key Skills
Though he said the ODEP list was a great start, Phelan observed that “follow-through is a very valuable skill that can be surprisingly hard to find.”
Gorman offered suggestions for young workers:
- Be a learner/be a student of the game. “Learn about your industry, your company, your function, your department,” she advised. “When you’re just starting out, you must be a sponge. Seek out mentors. Know the skills you need to learn, and volunteer for task forces and special assignments that will help you learn them.”
- Create a reputation for getting the job done. “Be that person who always exceeds expectations,” Gorman said. “Be that colleague who makes organizational life easier, not harder. Be the go-to person in your department. Be positive. Be willing.”
As for what not to do, Gorman cautioned young workers to avoid conveying a “know-it-all” attitude.
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.