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Study Mathematics Until Aged 18? Let’s Start With Soft Skills

In his first speech of 2023, the UK’s Prime Minister announced a new plan to better equip young people to enter the workforce: get them to study mathematics up until the age of 18.

Rishi Sunak said: “In a world where data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job, our children’s jobs will require more analytical skills than ever before.

“And letting our children out into the world without those skills is letting our children down.”

The workplace does have a skills problem. Only a fifth of UK employers believe graduates enter into the world of work equipped with the right skills, one survey by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) found.

And graduates are inclined to agree: a 2022 report by Cengage Group found that, among traditional degree graduates, just 41% believe a college degree signals they have, or will have, the skills needed by their employers.

Sunak’s solution, then, sounds sensible. After all, UK government research in 2021 discovered that, while there was “significant demand” for data skills, 46% of businesses had struggled to recruit for data roles in the two years prior.

But the laser focus on numeracy fails to consider a potentially bigger skills crisis brewing, and it concerns those commonly grouped together as ‘behavioural’ or ‘soft’ skills.

Consider the aforementioned CMI report, which identified 11 crucial employability skills graduates need for the workplace. All fit the description of soft skills, with the list including self management, flexibility and adaptability, initiative and self-direction, problem solving and communication.

Meanwhile, a 2019 report by IBM found the top two skills sought by employers were a willingness to be flexible, agile and adaptable to change, plus time management skills and an ability to prioritize.

In other words, firms want employees who know how to be productive: how to make the best of their time by determining what to work on when in response to ever-moving priorities, and how to motivate and organize themselves to get the job done.

The shift to hybrid and remote work has made these skills even more important for today’s workforce. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the five top skills needed by staff working between their homes and offices are communication, collaboration, organization, digital literacy and time management.

And, as technology and automation advance, these types of skills are only going to become more necessary. In his book, Future Skills: The 20 Skills And Competencies Everyone Needs to Succeed In A Digital World, author Bernard Marr says soft skills like emotional intelligence, flexibility and time management are paramount as they enable us to do the things machines can’t.

Yet finding people with the right skills isn’t easy. According to the Society For Human Resource Management (SHRM), almost three in four employers struggle to find graduates with the soft skills they need.

Moreover, more than half of those surveyed by the organization in 2019 claim the education system has done little or nothing to address the gap in graduate skills.

While some people might naturally be better communicators or more organized than others, these are all skills than can – and should be – taught. Yet, with schools failing to equip people with these skills early on, some businesses are doing it themselves.

Natasha Maddock, co-founder of Events Made Simple, a team building, events and training business says: “Post pandemic we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of companies looking to organize training events and team away days that focus on improving key skills in an aim to boost productivity and engagement.”

Maddock says businesses are now more aware that working from home, although popular and beneficial in many ways, comes with notable disadvantages when it comes to productivity and, in particular, collaboration.

“People who struggle to focus effectively at home are at greater risk of becoming overwhelmed by their to-do lists,” she says. “Learning how to prioritize tasks and manage time effectively can help ensure your team is focused on the things that matter.”

Being able to set boundaries is vital, says Claire Warner, the CEO and founder of Lift, a workplace culture and wellbeing consultancy.

“It’s very easy for remote workers to end up in a full week of video calls and then end up working evenings and weekends to actually do the work,” she says.

“Individual and organization boundary-setting on arranging meetings, protected time, and catering for the needs of all colleagues, especially those who are part time, is crucial to making working remotely, work.”

Her firm’s productivity training sessions start with a self-awareness exercise, where people are asked to consider what they know about themselves and their preferred working styles and patterns, including when they are at their most and least productive. They also consider the barriers to their productivity from the employer side – for example, when are they not getting the support they need?

A big problem is that too few employers provide on-the-job training in soft skills. Only around a quarter of UK employees receive any training at all, found an IES report, and 50% of that relates to things like inductions and health and safety.

With research showing as many as 75% of employers in the UK faced recruiting difficulties in 2022, upskilling employees and preparing the workers of tomorrow with the right skills to thrive in the workplace is paramount.

So, by all means get more teenagers identifying isosceles triangles and picking apart polynomials, but let’s introduce lessons on how to manage your time effectively and prioritize tasks, too.

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