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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

Learning at work—Demand for soft skills in a digital world

Soft skills like creativity, emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility are in the World Economic Forum’s top ten of skills that will be needed in 2020. The good news, says Fiona Kingsford, is they can be taught and learned.

BY 2020, HALF OF THE world’s working population will be Millennials, and in New Zealand that happened in 2018. These 20 to 35-year-olds are characterised as being tech-savvy, multi-taskers, advice seekers and creative problem solvers. Entrepreneurship is in their DNA and they want flexible working conditions, fulfilling careers, fairness and equality.

They make up 1.7 billion of the world’s population and they deserve some attention from the people who are training them, employing them, managing them and working alongside them. By understanding your workforce, you can harness their strengths and ensure you are getting the best from this multi-faceted generation.

But employers and educators must also keep an eye on the next wave of new recruits, Generation Z, who will soon be entering tertiary education and the workforce en masse.

As Kiwi education futurist Frances Valintine puts it, the six to 19-year-olds dubbed Generation Z have spent their lives living in a world defined by collaboration, problem solving, adaptability and new forms of advanced technology. They are design thinkers, social crusaders, education disruptors and they are politically mobilised.

We know from the World Economic Forum that 65 percent of today’s primary school children will enter work in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.

And, with their expected lifespans increasing, 11-year-olds today could live to over 100, so lifelong learning will become even more important than it is now. They will have to learn, unlearn and relearn throughout their lives, and they could move through ten or more different careers.

These are remarkable times and, as an industry training organisation, we are working to play our part in building an empowered community of learners who are continually upskilling and reskilling.


In its Future of Jobs Report, the World Economic Forum looks at the employment, skills and workforce strategy for the future and sets out the top ten skills that will be needed in 2020.

While there are some skills listed that will be familiar to the Millennial generation, such as complex problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration, there are others that will become more prominent. And they might be surprising.

Creativity is listed as the third most important skill, whereas in 2015 it was at number ten. Emotional intelligence, service orientation and cognitive flexibility didn’t make the top ten in 2015, but are now listed as vital for 2020.

Some organisations call them transferable skills, professional skills or people skills, and at Competenz we call them soft skills.

They are the personality traits, social cues and communication skills needed for success on the job, and they characterise how people interact and develop relationships with others.

Soft skills include attitude, communication, teamwork, networking, positivity, time management, motivation, flexibility, and conflict resolution.

The employers we work with tell us these skills can be the difference between an adequate employee and an exceptional employee.

While soft skill development does involve some investment from employers, it doesn’t need to consist of lengthy qualifications, expensive off-site training and lost productivity due to time away from the job.

The good news is soft skills can be taught and learned, and there are high-quality education programmes that can be accessed online.

Like Xero, BNZ and the New Zealand Government, Competenz has teamed up with the Joy Business Academy to deliver bite-sized online courses and games that allow people to understand and apply soft skills concepts in an engaging environment.

Because they are delivered online they meet the expectations of Millennials—the programmes are flexible and fit in around work schedules, home life and other commitments. They can be accessed on any device, anywhere with an internet connection.

And they’re part of a much bigger digital transformation strategy at Competenz to ensure our learning platforms are fit for the future.


Like many Kiwi organisations, Competenz is rapidly progressing through a transformation project to ensure our digital systems are smart, efficient and delivering a great customer experience.

For our field staff it means ditching paperwork for tablets, online tools and efficient systems to communicate and share information wherever they are in the country, and having access to real-time data when they need it.

For the businesses we work with it means they have a digital portal to see how their apprentices and trainees are tracking.

And for our learners we’ve introduced the learning management system Canvas, the same platform used by more than 3000 universities and institutions worldwide, including the University of Auckland and Manukau Institute of Technology here in New Zealand.

Millennials and Generation Z expect to use a slick digital interface, whether it’s for education or for work, and it is a huge focus for us going forward.

Education is becoming more accessible than ever and we know the demand for soft skills will only increase in coming years. Who knows what skills will sneak into the 2025 predictions? We can prepare now and provide our employees time and tools, and we encourage businesses to incorporate online learning into the strategy to grow their people.

FIONA KINGSFORD is chief executive of Competenz.

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