By Patrick McGurk

What are the skills that employers really want? Do new recruits have them? Where are the gaps and how should these be filled?

These are longstanding concerns of HR, and the basis of time-honoured practices such as training needs analysis and workforce development plans. But there is increasing confusion about skills and what they mean anymore.

Like 'talent', ‘skill’ has become one of those HR-isms that can mean virtually anything that employees can and should do. Intuitively, we understand skill as 'the way someone does something’, and how they do it well. (You rarely hear anyone say that “he is a bad footballer, but he does have skill”.) However, skill has become catch-all shorthand that also covers 'knowledge' (what someone knows) and 'personal qualities' (how someone is, their attitudes, or how they present themselves). In addition, some organisations have developed massive banks of ‘competencies’ to describe every conceivable role in the organisations at various levels in the hierarchy, and what employees must ‘know, understand and do’ at each level. As a result, using large and unrealistic skill-sets or competency-banks for HR planning has become cumbersome and impractical.

A further dimension to the problem is that technical skills are easier to specify, for example through recognised qualifications. But it is people skills, or ‘attitude’, that are so important - especially in the fast-growing and dominant and fast-growing service industries – yet which are harder to pin down objectively.

To cut through the confusion, the old distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills is the most helpful way for employers to identify what it is that they really want in their workforces. Also, the distinction between basic, intermediate and advanced skills helps employers differentiate between the types of jobs they need people to do, both now and in the future. This two-way approach can be illustrated using a simple matrix.








(University degree-level and above)


 Hard skills


e.g. technical licenses, basic numeracy and IT


e.g. technical apprenticeship, special licenses


e.g. specialist knowledge, research and analysis


 Soft skills


e.g. work ethic


e.g. team-leadership, creative design


e.g. presentations, project management


The six categories in the matrix are not set in stone for every employer and are not always easy to define, especially in the case of soft skills. However, the above approach does help concentrate the mind on how the organisation is developing for the future.

For example, do we need more Type F jobs? And will we need less Type A jobs? The answer is probably yes. The latest evidence from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills shows that the demand for jobs requiring no or few qualifications is declining, while employers are making more use of graduates. Nonetheless, low-wage work is still very prevalent in the UK and, at the other end of the spectrum, there is still a problem of over-qualification, with too many graduates not using their skills at work.

But it seems that employers are slowly managing to phase out the lowest-skill work, for example through automation, and learning to make better use of their graduates, by designing more interesting and challenging jobs for them to do.

In the middle ground, there is also a sizeable number of Type C and D jobs for people to perform. While employers may not need quite so many Type E jobs, they could do well to design more opportunities for appropriately qualified college leavers. The bad news is that the recruitment of apprentices seems to have stalled, despite the recent push by the government.

Overall the key message for employers is: don’t over-complicate what it is that you want from new recruits, but don’t over-simplify it either. Use a simple matrix. Secondly, be aware of what your new recruits are bringing with them from school, college and university, and do your best to design interesting and appropriately challenging jobs around them.

Dr Patrick McGurk is Head of Human Resources and Organisational Behaviour at the University of Greenwich Business School. He has been a management trainer in both the private and public sectors and taught in both further and higher education in Britain and Germany. His research on management and leadership development has been published in international academic journals. He is currently undertaking research into the role of human resource management in the government’s welfare-to-work reforms.

© Patrick McGurk 2015.