More soft skills needed

Lawrence Zammit's article on The Times of Malta

Two weeks ago I wrote about the shortage of skills being experienced by employers. There are simply not enough people around to meet the demand for labour both in quantitative terms and in qualitative terms. This explains the presence of so many non-Maltese working in our country.

Without doubt the educational system has provided and continues to provide persons with the right technical skills. On the other hand there have been pronouncements that the educational system does not necessarily ensure that all young persons are given a fair chance. It tends to lose too many of them along the way because it does not cater for students who may have a different style of learning or who require specific attention.

We need to place this in a historical context. Primary and secondary education in Malta has never really been a big issue and for this reason it may not have kept abreast of developments. This does not mean that there have not been changes in compulsory education over the years. Some would day that there have been too many changes.

However by and large it has served us well. We made sure that it has been adequately resourced and the state has sought to achieve a level of excellence in its schools that could match that in Church schools and independent schools. We now know that we need to make a great leap forward in the provision of primary and secondary education.

The same could not be said about tertiary education, which was choked and not allowed to develop in the 1970’s and the first half of the 1980’s. Things had to be set right in this case and institutions (the University and MCAST) were allowed to develop to make sure there is an adequate offering for young people wishing to move into tertiary education. This coincided with the big changes in our economy, and for a while we were all satisfied with the results being achieved.

However the needs of business continued to change as the economy continued to develop. This placed new demands on employees, which the education system was not providing. Those qualifying in accountancy, law, engineering, nursing, medicine and other areas are not any less qualified than those who qualified ten, twenty or thirty years ago. The issue is that the qualification is no longer enough.

Today’s employees are expected not only expected to be experts in their area well; but they are also expected to have a platform of skills that have become increasingly important. They need to have decision making skills, communication and inter-personal skills, self-organisation skills. They need to have an appreciation of the financial dimension of every decision they make.

They need to be quality conscious and to be customer centric. They need to have leadership skills and able to manage their resources well. They need to understand the changes in the world around them and how these changes are impacting their job. They need to understand the objectives of the organisation where they work and what contribution they can make for those objectives to be achieve.

Numbers need to mean something to them. They must also know how IT can improve their personal effectiveness. They must be critical thinkers and able to build stronger relationships with people. They should be able to identify areas for future personal development. Probably this list is not exhaustive and will keep on changing over the years to come.

Some of these elements are learnt through one’s own life experiences. Other elements should be provided by the education system. Then there are other elements which are acquired through one’s own lifelong learning activities. These are the so called soft skills that I referred to in the title of this week’s contribution.

It is becoming increasingly necessary for our young people, irrespective of their level of academic qualification and their knowledge in their area of expertise, to acquire these soft skills.

Employees need to accept that they need to go through a process of personal development that would enable them to obtain qualifications in some or all of the skills that I have mentioned and which sit alongside their academic qualification and their knowledge in their area of expertise.

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