Professional skills are foundational for both safety and success in the workplace, so why are we seeing a gap in their development by STEM graduates? In Electricity Human Resources Canada (EHRC)’s review of university and college engineering and technology programs, we found that there are gaps across the board when it comes to active listening, speaking, self-awareness, social perceptiveness, collaboration, time management and active learning.
These skills are important for the resilience of workers in the electricity sector and in all sectors across the Canadian economy. As evolving technology affects job functions and roles, versatility and adaptability will be critical for a workforce that thrives amid change.
In the case of electricity, the industry must continue to grow its workforce to accommodate increased electrification and development of renewable energy infrastructure. For the sector to remain resilient, these new workers must demonstrate a high degree of competency in both technical and non-technical skills. This will enable them not only to do their jobs safely but to adapt to the changing nature of their work.
This trend towards greater focus on professional skills isn’t new. RBC’s Humans Wanted report of 2018 included a list of the 10 most-wanted skills for future jobs, and all of them were non-technical. In 2016, 92% of executives surveyed by the Wall Street Journal said a candidate’s non-technical capabilities matter just as much as their technical skills. As the conversation grows, it’s important to consider, what do we mean when we talk about these skills and where do they come from?
Mark Chapeskie will be presenting a session at CERIC’s upcoming Cannexus conference, taking place Jan. 24-26, 2022, on “Professional Skills for Launching and Developing Careers.”
Defining professional skills
You may have heard terms like “soft skills” or “transferrable skills” to refer to similar sets of competencies. EHRC’s definition of professional skills is grounded in the skills that matter most to electricity sector employers when they look to hire.
Let’s take a closer look at what these skills are and EHRC defines them.
Active listening: giving full attention to what other people are saying, taking time to understand the points being made, asking questions as appropriate and not interrupting at inappropriate times.
Speaking: talking to others to convey information effectively.
Critical thinking: using logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions or approaches to problems.
Reading comprehension: understanding written sentences and paragraphs in work-related documents.
Self-awareness: monitoring and assessing one’s own performance to make improvements or take corrective action.
Social perceptiveness: being aware of others’ reactions and understanding why they react as they do.
Collaboration: adjusting actions in relation to others’ actions.
Time management: managing one’s own time and the time of others.
Judgment and decision-making: considering the relative costs and benefits of potential actions to choose the most appropriate one.
Active learning: understanding the implications of new information for both current and future problem-solving and decision-making.
Where are they learned?
Professional skills can be learned in school or on the job. When investigating where young workers entering the electricity sector might develop these skills, we polled both employers and post-secondary institutions. We asked: where does the responsibility lie for developing these skills in the next-generation workforce?
Most respondents answered that in fact it is the students themselves who have the responsibility to develop these skills, though most acknowledged that the capacity for skills development was rather found with employers and educators.
If this is the case, then the responsibility is equally shared. So, where can both educators and employers improve their ability to support professional skills development?
In 2019, in the case of educators, we found that program accreditation requirements (e.g. Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board attributes or the Canadian Technology Accreditation Criteria) were one area where professional skills requirements could be more clearly reflected. These accreditation criteria influence curricula, and there are direct correlations between the way courses are delivered and the types of skills they prompt in students.
For employers, getting involved in work-integrated learning (WIL) programs is the most effective way to instill professional skills in the next generation workforce. Employer respondents to our research who did not have a WIL program in place responded differently than those that did, showing us that WIL programs lead to an increased awareness among employers of the positive role they can play in a student’s professional skills development.
Collaborating for professional skills
We know that professional skills are becoming more and more critical in all workplaces. Employers are increasingly looking for employees who are adaptable, resourceful and able to make sound decisions within the context of technological change. Both educators and employers have the tools to encourage the development of these skills in the next-generation workforce.
In the case of electricity, our evolving grid relies on a safety-focused and resilient workforce. Professional skills are a critical part of this picture.