Soft Skills Beat Experience on UK Employer Wish Lists

Soft skills like team-working and the ability to learn have become more important than experience or even competency on spreadsheets for people looking for jobs in England at the start of 2024.

Using Reed Recruitment’s job vacancy data, Bloomberg will produce monthly readouts on the state of the jobs market in England.

The findings in an analysis of data from Reed Recruitment provided to Bloomberg is an indication that employers have relaxed hiring standards to lure staff from a small pool of applicants. It also sheds light on shifts in working patterns following the pandemic.

The data showed that mentions of “previous experience” in banking, professional and financial services listings have fallen 22% in the month through Jan. 7 compared with pre-Covid levels. References to “excellent communication” were up 18%. Those looking for Microsoft Excel, once considered a must for those in finance and consulting, dropped by 40%.

“A tight labor market, with more vacancies and fewer available workers, makes it harder to find candidates,” said James Reed, chairman of the jobs-search organization that bears his name. “Employers have had to widen their criteria, making communication and other soft skills more important.”

Soft Skills Trump Know-How on UK Employer Wish Lists

Mentions in legal, finance and banking job ads in the month to Jan. 7

Note: Includes jobs in legal, accounting, financial services and banking sectors. Index refers to the normalized frequency of phrases to account for variations in the number of job ads across periods.Source: Reed Recruitment

The findings bolster the Labour Party’s efforts to improve communication skills of students in state schools. Opposition leader Keir Starmer has said communication skills are essential to “remove barriers to opportunity.” That approach differs from Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, which emphasizes math and science education and computer coding skills.

Employers are finding it difficult to hire staff to fill the jobs they have open, which has pushed up wages and triggered alarm bells at the Bank of England. While those forces have moderated in recent months, the Reed figures indicate the pressures are still a factor for many companies.

More than 500,000 people dropped out of the UK workforce since the pandemic, and many of those still haven’t returned. It’s left companies struggling to fill vacancies, a constraint on the ability of the economy to grow and an upward force on wages and prices. Reed’s data sets in sharp relief trends others have noticed.

“When the going gets tough, employers get less specific about what they need,” said Jon Boys, senior labor market economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. “We’re in an environment where it’s really hard to get hold of people. There might be more of an emphasis on recruiting for potential and re-skilling existing staff.”

UK Firms Still Have More Unfilled Roles Than Before Covid

Number of vacancies in the UK, three-month average

Note: January to March 2020 to October to December 2023Source: Office for National Statistics

Official data showed pay growth cooled at one of the fastest paces on record in the three months through November, while the number of employees on payroll dropped in the quarter through December. Postings continued to fall as firms lowered demand for staff, but there were still over 100,000 unfilled roles compared with pre-Covid levels.

Sectors including retail, manufacturing and construction were among those seeing the highest increase in open roles at the end of December compared to 2020, according to separate data from the jobs site Indeed.

A survey by the business consultant Hays indicated that more employers in 2024 are willing to hire candidates who don’t have all the necessary skills in 2024 than the year before. And almost half of employers say it’s not important if a job applicant has a degree, the same report found.

“I don’t know if candidates quite realize the power they still have,” said Gaelle Blake, head of permanent appointments at Hays UK and Ireland. “The jobs market is stronger for the candidate than it’s for the employer.”

Reed says that while companies are more vague about who they’re after, they’re more specific about what they offer. Postings on its site show an increase in mentions of holiday days, pension schemes and mental health than before the pandemic struck in early 2020.

Hays echoed that sentiment, saying benefits like cycle-to-work schemes, corporate retail discounts or eye care vouchers are also becoming more popular than last year.

“You can’t always compete on salary,” according to Kate Shoesmith, deputy chief executive officer at the Recruitment and Employment Confederation. “One of the things that we are definitely seeing as a recruitment trend is how you think about the overall benefits package.”

Non-Pay Benefits Are More Popular Than Pre-Covid

Change in mentions in all job postings in the month to Jan. 7, 2024 versus 2020

Note: Normalized to account for variations in the number of job ads in each periodSource: Reed Recruitment

As employers cast a wider net to fill open roles, candidates who can learn on the job are becoming more desirable. In addition to communication abilities, other desirable traits include the ability to learn new skills, adapt to change, solve problems and work flexibly, according to a number of recruiters.

Looking for good students rather than experts to fill vacancies also comes as generative AI is making it easier to acquire complex skills like coding or writing with flair. Companies are increasingly scouting employees who understand how to use ChatGPT-style tools as the technology becomes more widespread in the workplace, according to Ngaire Moyes, UK country manager at LinkedIn. Job postings mentioning AI have already more than doubled in the UK over the last two years, LinkedIn said.

Almost a quarter of UK companies said they planned to automate more of their work in Autumn 2023 in the face of skill shortages, around 37% more than the year before, according to a CIPD report.

More Firms Want Workers Who Can Learn on the Job

Top soft skills UK employers are looking for in 2024

Source: Hays Salary & Recruiting Trends Guide 2024

“You’re taking a skill that would’ve taken decades to learn and you’ve put it within grasp of the new starter,” Boys said. “AI could be a boon for the mediocre worker.”Reed said that lockdowns that forced millions of people to work from home interrupted the social skills people develop in offices.

“Covid-19 acted as a huge barrier to soft skills development, and now there is a fresh push from employers to re-nurture these skills,” Reed said. “The increased emphasis on soft skills suggests employers are looking for candidates showing potential to grow within their business and adapt, bolstering their technical ability along the way.”

Source from: Bloomberg