What Companies (Don’t) Want

Via Adam, this article:

Surveys of the key skills employers seek in graduates continue to place so-called “soft skills” – like verbal and written communication skills, the ability to work collaboratively in teams and to influence others – in the top ten. But a 2016 report found that other skills – such as critical thinking, problem-solving, attention to detail, and writing – top the list of missing skills among job-seekers.

These skills are rated as being important across all jobs and industries. And employees not having these skills costs businesses thousands of dollars per year.

A US survey has found miscommunication costs businesses with up to 100 staff an average of US$420,000 per year. Even more staggeringly, in another study, 400 businesses with at least 100,000 employees each claimed that inadequate communication cost an average of US$62.4 million per company per year.

I can well believe that having employees with the ability to explain themselves clearly, write a concise and understandable email, and prepare properly-structured and well-written reports is of great benefit to a company. I can also believe that such skills would make the top ten in a list of what employers desire.

What I don’t believe is that such “soft skills” are considered in the least bit important when it comes to recruitment, retention, and promotion. Sure, they might make the top ten but one must bear in mind that Mecca Cola probably makes it into the top ten best-selling cola products. There will be two, possibly three, key skills that companies require and the rest are largely irrelevant. For all the talk about the important of “soft skills”, they only ever get mentioned when an HR department is talking up its own importance, someone is peddling a training course, or you’re getting a bollocking for upsetting somebody. A look at the average email or report will tell you that written communication skills aren’t considered very important in the modern business world.

I have my own experience to offer up in support of this statement. I don’t think I’m getting too far above my own station when I say I have pretty good writing skills, and I have the ability to convey quite complex information in a structured, logical, and clear manner. There are better writers around than me, far better, but not many of them are engineers. Back when I was doing my A-levels my chemistry teacher told me I was rather uncommon in that I was a scientist who could write, and advised that I make use of that. I can honestly say that being able to write quickly and accurately has helped me a lot in my professional life, but insofar as it has been recognised by any employer over the past 17 years I might as well type with my fists when drunk. There have been one or two occasions, three at the most, where my writing abilities have been recognised in passing but they’ve certainly not contributed in any way to the positions I have been offered or the tasks I have been assigned. I might be a very, very average engineer who rubs people up the wrong rather too often but I would bet that I’ve been one of the best writers of English in any of the companies I’ve worked for (yes, even the big ones). Out of the technical staff I reckon I’d win that contest hands-down. Nobody even noticed, let alone put it to use.

In short, I’d not pay much attention to what companies say they want; I’d instead look at what they actually do. Revealed preferences, I believe these are called. And they’re not in the least bit interested in whether you can write.

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11 thoughts on “What Companies (Don’t) Want

  1. What companies want… Ah, I feel an anecdote coming on.

    When I worked in newspaper design and was involved with advertising, I knew a rep who sold a few ads every day. Nothing big, but it was steady income for the paper. A 6×2 (Six inches by two columns) here, a 5×1 there. He also went to clients who would pay up quickly: many debt-days were really bad news (pun intended) for newspapers* Sat next to him was guy who never actually sold anything, but always came back with glowing reports that a major advertiser had promised him a full page, or — gasp — a super pullout supplement.

    Of course, the promises never materialised but importantly for the future of our ‘man-of-promises’ they were neatly replaced by even better promises. So while Fred was knocking on doors and selling small but numerous ad spaces, his colleague Joe was sitting back looking the part as Mr Smooth and being patted on the back for getting big advertisers really interested in thinking about advertising in the rag.

    But here’s the thing: Fred wasn’t applauded, even though he was bringing in enough money to pay his and Mr Smooth’s wages, and probably mine as well. He eventually left for another job, but Joe was promoted up the ladder into management.

    Of course, everyone who worked in the department on the selling face knew what was going on, but they weren’t management. When Mr Smooth became Ad Manager he made sure he appointed lots of salespeople in the Fred mould. He certainly didn’t want any more dreamers and promisers like himself.

    So what the company here wanted was a bullshitter to eventually take over at the top because he looked the part and talked the talk, and anyway, who wanted to get their hands dirty actually making money by sheer slog?

    *Story goes that a lot of media companies liked having local newspapers on their books because every publishing day they are paid cash for each sale, and they can then work on reducing debt-days for big advertisers who don’t write cheques quickly.

  2. As a headhunter of some standing – he boasts – I have a small opinion to offer on this. Written communication skills come in at about #54 on the list of desirable skills. Communication skills, when that means the ability to influence the decisions of those who have a major influence over the success or failure of the business, come in at #1. Essentially communication here is standing in for character, or directed charisma. Engineers, and here your written skills help you beat the stereotype, tend to love metrics (if it ain’t measurable it doesn’t exist) and that works against them when it comes to influencing ‘wet pens’ in their favour.

  3. > A look at the average email or report will tell you that written communication skills aren’t considered very important in the modern business world.

    I laughed, its so true. Imagine my surprise when my first job out of school was filled with emails in all lower-case, terrible spelling, and zero punctuation.

    I will note that finance seems to reward writing skills more than any other field. All the top hedge funds write very persuasive quarterly letters, and Buffet’s annual report has a cult following. Analysts also write a ton of empty drivel but it all looks very nice.

    I revesit this gem whenver I need a laugh: https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/885590/000119312514336708/d786832d425.htm

  4. “… Communication skills, when that means the ability to influence the decisions of those who have a major influence over the success or failure of the business, come in at #1 …”

    Recusant, I am assuming that this means the ability to manipulate and bend to your will those around you. I am fascinated how someone conveys this in an interview. Is it the ability to manipulate the interviewer, and if so, is the interviewer aware of this as you seem to be?

    Layers upon layers.

  5. Listening to what a company says it wants is somewhat like listening to what a women wants. Your likely to be disappointed by the outcome should you expect complying with that expressed desire, and be rewarded by it.

    Revealed preferences, as always, are telling.

  6. Ah, I feel an anecdote coming on.

    Good! Anecdotes are more than welcome on this blog. 🙂

  7. Essentially communication here is standing in for character, or directed charisma.

    This may be the case at the very top of a company or in those departments which interface directly with a government stakeholder or similar, but insofar as the general management go it appears to me that character and charisma should be left at the front door the day you join and never collected again.

  8. Listening to what a company says it wants is somewhat like listening to what a women wants.

    Indeed.

  9. I will note that finance seems to reward writing skills more than any other field. All the top hedge funds write very persuasive quarterly letters, and Buffet’s annual report has a cult following. Analysts also write a ton of empty drivel but it all looks very nice.

    Yeah, I’ve noticed that too.

    I revesit this gem whenver I need a laugh:

    Jeez! 😮

  10. The “effective communicators” in my company are the ones who spend all day on the phone to each other in conference calls.

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