How to Identify and Train the Skill That Matters Most

The more people talk about the skills gap, the more I realize it’s a problem employers, and not candidates are going to have to fix. Sure, there’s the issue of candidates not seeking and learning the skills required of some of the world’s most high-paying jobs, and schools may need to focus on showing students how learning a trade can help them out in the long run. But if candidates aren’t interested, they won’t learn, and employers will be the ones who suffer. The candidates will find somewhere else to work — we’re in a candidate-driven market, after all. But if we attain better hires, we’re going to have to focus on things outside of learned skills. My recommendation? Problem-solving.

Problem-Solving: The Hardest Soft Skill to Find

Employers are realizing schools aren’t producing the candidates they need, and are adapting accordingly. Rather than focus purely on skills that make resumes look good, 77% of employers are now looking for candidates with “soft skills,” and 16% of employers consider them more crucial than hard skills. Soft skills are those you can’t easily learn on the job: communication, ethic and of course, problem-solving.

But while they may be looking, employers are coming up short on these kinds of candidates as much as they are those with the hardest of skills. A 2013 survey of the St. Louis workforce recently found candidates came up short with regards to the three skills I mentioned earlier. When candidates lack these skills, on-the-job training becomes much more difficult, and employers know this. It’s why they’re looking so hard, and the reason they’re coming up short is because they’re screening for problem-solving effectively, and not encouraging the kind of training employees need to improve at this crucial skill.

Why Problem-Solving Matters

Why is this soft skill so important? Because proper problem-solving skills will help employees learn all the hard skills they’ll need on the job, and help them thrive in whatever environment they may be working in. Once a problem-solving ethic kicks in, employees are less likely to have to ask questions about the work they’re doing, as they’ll be more inclined to look for their own solutions to the various problem they’ll encounter. As they solve more problems and continue learning, they’ll eventually become the self-sufficient and knowledgeable employees everyone is looking for.

Candidates know this as well, and are attempting to learn these skills as they look for jobs. Tim Murphy, founder of job-search company ApplyMate, catalogs his experience in learning to problem solve in order to get better jobs:

“Like any other highly-valued skill set, a can-do attitude requires practice, practice, practice. When preparing for different government jobs, I knew I’d face a lot of problem-solving or puzzle questions, and my early attempts at these challenges did not go well . . .  I needed work. So I tried as many sample questions as I could and bought puzzle and mental exercise books like How Would You Move Mt. Fuji? Most of these questions deal more with how to react to and work through the problem at hand, so they’re great practice even if you don’t get many of the answers.”

Solving the Problem-Solving Problem

After reading this far, you may have realized that your application or training process lacks a way to find these problem-solving candidates, or train those who may be lagging behind to find better solutions to their problems. The good news here is that as long as you’re willing to put in some work, these failings are rather easy to fix.

First, screening. How do you know if a candidate with a strong resume has the problem-solving knack to cut it at your company? You test them. First, develop a test that tackles some of the real problems people at your company will face. For example, global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company developed a test for their employees based on the computation, data analysis and logical thinking required of their best workers. The test asks candidates a number of questions about real problems employees have, and if they can’t pass the test, they don’t get an interview. It may take some time to develop a test that takes into account all of the skills required of working at your own company, but the time spent will be worth it once you find and hire employees whom you won’t need to babysit.

Second, training. If you’re already saddled with employees who can’t seem to think for themselves and come to you several times per day with small questions, the best bet may not be to fire them, but to teach them to fish (as the old adage goes). When employers offer training with more personal coaching focusing on problem-solving and offering direct feedback on said training, employers may see a performance boost of up to 88% per employee.

Problem solving isn’t a cure-all. If a worker or candidate doesn’t make the cut and doesn’t seem to respond to targeted coaching or screening, the best bet may just be to cut them loose. However, in a market in dire need of soft skills, extra effort spent on finding candidates who can problem-solve or instilling its values on those who may not have, may just be worth it.

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