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April 1, 2011

Is the call for more ‘soft skills’ actually just guff?

What to make of a new survey from CA Technologies about preparing for a career in IT? Gary Flood finds out

By Cbr Rolling Blog

For years, we’ve been debating in the ICT industry about what the right combination of business and technology skills are – hence such terms as the ‘hybrid manager’ and whatnot. Secretly, most ICT professionals seem to have ignored the need for them to be able to talk to other people (or even the ones paying for them) in anything other than Geek, as they merrily focused on the bits and the bytes.

Maybe that’s finally starting to change? That at least is one reading of an intriguing piece of research by supplier CA Technologies (the sample was of some 80 or so Information Technology Business Management degree students from eight universities across the UK; if you’re not familiar with that qualification, it’s a degree designed in partnership with industry to prepare students for a successful career in IT).

It found that 45% felt communication skills and team skills were the most helpful when preparing for a career in IT. A majority – by a whisker: 51% – said they believed IT technical skills to be the least important. And in another thumbs up for the soft skills caucus, when asked what else these budding ICT workers see as helpful in securing good jobs, the answer came back – at 23% – as ‘team skills’.

The pollsters also found students would rather go into project management (31%) and consultancy (30%) jobs out of the gate than the more technical jobs like infrastructure architecture (1%). It’s also worth noting that the most popular route these graduates want to take after their studies is to work with an IT supplier or in the retail industry.

They may face some disappointment – because it turns out that at the moment, at least, it’s actually the more hardcore techie jobs that are being advertised. The more technical jobs were the least popular with only four percent of students looking to forge a career in software development and one percent in infrastructure architecture, for instance, but according to this data 17% of employers questioned said they are actively recruiting software developers, not, say, business analysts.

Thus we come to a bit of a pickle; we may be training people for jobs that they don’t want, or that aren’t there. This could be less a triumph for the soft skills approach than might first have been imagined, therefore. As the survey says, quoting government (ONS) figures, since the onset of the recession, 20% of new graduates have found themselves unemployed and one in six IT graduates are finding themselves unemployed after six months of graduating.

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No wonder that, again, from this research, despite 85% of students stating that they felt ‘very well prepared’ or ‘well prepared’ for a job in IT – only 50% of employers feel that IT graduates are equipped with the right skills to enter the workforce.

I think this is a problem and possibly one of our own making. Does it suggest we need to re-focus education and aspiration to a more technical direction? Does it even suggest that the cynical ICT techies were right all along – and that soft skills really are for the birds, and hardcore programming is the key to employment?

Interesting – maybe even disturbing? – stuff.

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