June 03, 2013
Survey: Many workers lacking in key workforce skills

It used to be that mastery of the 3 Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic) was enough to prepare workers for many jobs; now, executives of U.S. organizations say it is crucial that students and employees also master the 4 Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity), according to a recent American Management Association (AMA) report.

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“There is an overwhelming belief on the part of American businesses that these emerging skills are important to their workforce,” says Edward T. Reilly, who is CEO of the AMA and editor of AMA Business Boot Camp (AMACOM 2013). The survey found that nearly 75% of managers and executives who participated in the “AMA 2012 Critical Skills Survey” reported that the 4 Cs will become increasingly important skills in the next 3 to 5 years.

Skills gap identified

The majority of survey participants indicated that the 4 Cs are already priorities for employee development, talent management, and succession planning; that employees are evaluated on their mastery of those skills during performance appraisals; and that their organizations assess job applicants on the 4 Cs, the survey found.

However, the survey also identified a gap between the skills that employees possess and the skills their employers want them to have—with more than half of survey participants indicating that their organizations could improve in the 4 Cs. In fact, 62% of executives said the majority of their workforce is average or below average in communication skills. Sixty-one percent reported that their employees are average or below average in creativity, followed by collaboration (52%) and critical thinking (49%).

“I think these are, in some cases, hard skills to master. Our formal education system has only recently begun to encourage things like collaboration and critical thinking skills,” says Reilly. In the past, he notes, the emphasis in K-12 and post-secondary education was on “regurgitating facts,” but now the focus is on building and rewarding collaboration and critical thinking.

As companies strive to be more competitive in the global marketplace, the 4 Cs have taken on a greater importance across industries and job types, Reilly says. “These are skills that have grown in importance and recognition in the last 8 or 10 years.”

That’s not surprising when you consider “the evolving pattern in American business and the circumstances that pervade the economic landscape,” he says, adding that technology is changing the way people work, layers of management have been taken out of organizations in an effort to speed processes, and the pace of change in business has increased. “We’re expecting more from people at more levels of the organization.”

What to do

Reilly credits the survey with identifying “a group of skills that have overwhelming acceptance inside America’s corporations and around the world” and says it highlights the need for HR to have a “conscious understanding of these skills” and recruit employees who are strong in the 4 Cs.

During the interview process, hiring managers can probe applicants for examples of creative thinking in their previous positions (i.e., how they handled a certain problem and whether they accepted things as presented to them or whether they used creativity to add value to the organization), he says.

HR also needs to focus on developing the 4 Cs in existing employees and give employees the tools they need to excel in those areas. “It is a wise investment to continue to develop these skills in a conscious and formal manner”—training both managers and rank-and-file employees on the 4 Cs, Reilly says. In AMA’s survey, mentoring and in-house job training were cited as the most effective methods to strengthen the 4 Cs. Other effective methods were one-on-one coaching, job rotation, and professional development.

Finally, Reilly says it is important to create a culture that values innovation and accepts risk and to reinforce mastery of the 4 Cs through performance appraisals and rewards. By rewarding better critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity, employers are more likely to see the desired skills, he says.

For more information, visit www.amanet.org and playbook.amanet.org.

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