· 2 min read · Features

James Caan: It’s about time we close the soft skills gap


Debating the importance of academic qualifications compared to life experience

The CIPD recently released a report showing that almost 60% of graduates are in 'non-graduate' jobs, which once again shines a light on the debate around the importance of academic qualifications compared to life experience.

Getting ahead at work and achieving business success are not just about qualifications, education or background. I put my own success down to soft skills – the vital skills such as teamwork and time management that everyone needs to thrive at work and beyond.

Recent research by Development Economics shows that more than half of UK employers value these skills more highly than qualifications. This might sound obvious but almost any modern workplace, big or small, relies on team-working, collaboration and customer interaction of one kind or another.

Furthermore, three-quarters of employers say there is already a soft skills gap in today’s workforce and economists predict that by 2020 more than half a million workers will be significantly held back by a lack of these skills. With the publication of its report, the CIPD stressed that skills development alongside vocational training is crucial.

For many students a university degree will be the right path. However, we need to make sure that those who do go to university pay as much attention to their soft skills as their academic rigour. And that those who don't go on to higher education have access to vocational routes into work and learning.

Early this year I joined forces with McDonald’s, as well as a host of businesses, employers, and business groups including the CIPD, Confederation of British Industry, National Youth Agency, and Federation of Small Businesses, to call for a wholescale re-evaluation of the value of soft skills.

Together we demonstrated the hard value of soft skills by revealing that they are worth approximately £88 billion to the UK economy. With this figure predicted to increase to £109 billion during the next five years, we embarked on a three-month consultation that saw more than 60 businesses and individuals share their experiences and ideas for better recognition and development of soft skills.

Four clear recommendations came out of these discussions, which I hope will act as catalysts to formally recognise soft skills and give them the value they deserve:

  • A robust, user-friendly soft skills framework to help employees and businesses showcase and measure soft skills needs to be created.
  • Soft skills should be embedded into curricular and non-curricular activities. Schools must be able to better highlight where soft skills are being developed as part of the broader education experience. How can young people demonstrate these skills if they don’t know how or when they’re acquiring them?
  • There also needs to be improved links between business, education and the youth sector to drive careers education for young people and the development of soft skills. By making mentoring, volunteering and work experience programmes easier to access, pupils, employers and employees would greatly benefit.
  • Finally we need government departments to be more joined up. For soft skills to have the recognition they deserve there has to be greater cohesion between key government departments with a consistent approach to soft skills.

Maintaining a competitive edge is increasingly essential for the continued success of UK plc, and as such these four recommendations need to be implemented. Soft skills are all too often missing from this debate, and yet are key to it. Not only will better recognition and promotion of soft skills benefit the UK economy, it will also make a significant difference to the businesses, careers and lives of young people.

James Caan is an entrepreneur and venture capitalist