Skills: Why We Are Getting It Wrong And What To Focus On?

Let’s face it. Wherever we go these days, on every webinar, conference, forum, and discussion, there is always a question of skills. Typical statements you will hear include we need to solve this skills problem, our industry has a skills shortage, we need to find a way to find the right skills, we can’t find skilled people and many more. The common thread that binds all such statements is, the skills in these cases are purely technical and job-related. However, the problem we have is far deeper and a bit more basic than this. Here’s a question for you to think about:

How many of you knew you would be doing the job you are doing today, twenty years ago?

Even going by the history of the previous three industrial revolutions, it is fairly evident that we cannot definitely say what skills will be needed and in demand at what point of time in the future. For example, when I was studying engineering in late 90s and early 00s, all the engineering drawings we did were on paper. Design calculations we did were also on paper using calculators and first principles. There was a safety factor for everything and textbooks had the rules that we had to follow. Technologies such as 3D modelling and Finite Element Analysis (FEA) were still in infancy and I still remember studying a module on FEA, which was mostly mathematics (partial differential equations and matrix conversions).

However, I am still here, today, writing about skills and running Equitus, a design, engineering and innovations company. This is due to a number of factors including skills that no University or two degrees in Engineering managed to teach me. I am guessing it is the same with most of you. This brings us back to the question of what it is that we need to be focusing on, in terms of skills. Here is what I think is essential:

  1. Resilience: Resilience is defined as the ability to recover quickly from setbacks or difficulties. Let us face it, the world today is a much tougher place than it was perhaps 20 or 30 years ago. There are even more ways to fail than to succeed. Putting the definition of resilience alongside the state of affairs in the world today, resilience can be redefined as the ability to discover the ways in which to succeed in whatever one chooses to accomplish. It is not the same thing as stubbornness. Stubbornness is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting something different to happen. Resilience builds when we learn to accept failure, understand that it is ok to fail, learn from our failures and try new things out until we succeed (a bit like Edison).
  2. Critical Thinking: Simply put, critical thinking is the ability to look at a given situation from multiple perspectives, some of which often conflict with our own internal biases. The good news is, with practice, one can get good at it. How does one develop critical thinking and become good at it then? Start by looking at the problem and how it affects the people. The ability to focus on a problem, combined with the empathy to understand how and why if affects the people is essential. When I say people, it’s not about passing blame or pointing fingers. It is about acknowledging that there is an impact on people and then minimising the bad and maximising the good. Critical thinking is essential to effectively solve problems, the next skill on my list.
  3. Problem Solving: As the phrase suggests, there are again, two stages to it; the problem stage and the solving The first stage is getting to the root cause of problems. Only with perseverance, inquisitiveness and willingness to ask questions, is getting to the root cause of problems possible. These are again variants on the resilience theme, in-fact these are some of the behaviours that resilient people often display. Once the root cause of problems has been identified, then comes the phase of solving the problem, or finding the solution. The behaviours required to be able to effectively solve problems with consistency and efficiency are the same behaviours required to identify the real problems.

To summarise this post, the focus of skills development should be on three things:

  1. Develop resilience
  2. Develop critical thinking
  3. Develop problem-solving abilities

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