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Traveling the world or walking dogs as a volunteer: The importance of acquiring skills that AI cannot imitate

In a context in which technology is flooding the jobs market, the most competitive companies are getting ever more interested in employees with innate, more lasting qualities that cannot be learned, and which mark the difference between ordinariness and excellence

Inteligencia Artificial
The most competitive companies not only look at academic degrees, but also at skills that are not taught in universities.Morsa Images (Getty Images)

Last year I met Masaki in a Galician hotel at breakfast time. The young Japanese man was walking the Camino de Santiago. “I’m not doing it out of religious belief,” he told me, “I’ve finished my studies and I’m looking for a job. In my country, companies value this type of thing highly, and this pilgrimage gives you points when it comes to being chosen for a good position.” For some time now, the most competitive companies have not only looked at the academic degrees or qualifications of their potential employees, but they also look at those skills that are not taught in universities. These can be decisive in closing a deal, attracting a new client, or leaving the audience with a good impression. They are the so-called soft skills, among which are ease of communication, adaptability, critical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence, teamwork, motivation, problem-solving, empathy, and a whole host of others.

Companies like Google have been pioneers in choosing their candidates for more than just their academic qualifications; the attitude that the company calls “googliness” is as important as the studies. Having googliness is not marked by diplomas, work experience, or the languages a candidate speaks. It is not even among the skills they list on their résumés. It’s a mix of all that plus values and personality. It might have a lot to do with playing a sport, having traveled around the world, knowing how to play the saxophone, walking dogs as a volunteer at a local shelter, or working in the neighborhood community garden on Sundays.

Soft skills, also called transversal competencies, are gaining new strength in the era of artificial intelligence (AI). They are still holding out against technology — although it is trying to imitate them — because they are more difficult to learn. “Even the most unlikely person can handle an application, but when it comes to creativity, candidates either have it or they don’t,” says Jimmy Naraine, who studied international business and administration at Aston Business School, in Birmingham, United Kingdom, and teaches courses on corporate training and leadership for Udemy, the leading online learning platform. “The problem with these skills,” Naraine continues, “is that technology often prevents us from putting them to use. We end up losing them, and we have to learn them again.” Not in vain, this teacher’s most in-demand courses are those that deal with public speaking, and improving self-confidence, resilience, and leadership.

In May and June of this year, a study was carried out within the MEGASKILLS project to ask the opinion of a hundred European companies about soft skills, their value in organizations, and which ones they consider most important. The GECON.es Foundation and European Entrepreneurs CEA-PME took part in the survey. The work revealed that the soft skills most in demand by companies are, in the following order: time management, problem-solving, motivation, teamwork/collaboration, critical thinking, adaptability, and communication. Although it must be taken into account that the order of this list varies, depending on the sector in which the organization works (education, technology, manufacturing, services, etc.). It is also striking that an overwhelming 89.9% of the companies indicated that they are aware of the need to have professionals who have key soft skills, although the proportion that has these skills in their workforce is only 71.1%.

AI will change the meaning of the word “work”

The enormous change in the labor market and work will not come in the form of an earthquake, but rather like an unstoppable tide that rises and floods everything. “AI uses models with billions of parameters and is capable of imitating something as complex as human language,” says Enrique Dans, writer and professor of Innovation at IE University (Madrid, Spain). “So many professions that are connected with language are under threat or will be modified. In South Korea, however, where low-skilled labor is scarce, AI has focused heavily on robotics, and there are already waiter and shop assistant robots, which perform less creative tasks.”

What almost all labor experts agree on is that artificial intelligence has not only come to eliminate certain jobs but will create others and, without a doubt, will change working and leadership methods. “I think of the enormous amount of information that will be coming to us from everywhere, and I see the need for someone to fact-check it and verify its sources,” economist Ernesto Poveda says. “Because the immediacy of the action, in a world in which decisions must be made against the clock, will clash with the need to check information, under penalty of legal consequences. But once again, technology is moving much faster than regulation,” he continues. “In my opinion, the most valued skill in these times is, without doubt, adaptability. We will have to know how to adapt to the thousands of changes that we are going to have in the way we work and in our relationships with co-workers, since everything will be more transversal and more coordinated between the different departments. More decisions will have to be made in groups, and this will also affect management and leadership,” predicts Poveda.

If it is true that demand for employees with soft skills is increasing, interest in such skills varies according to geography. “The U.S., Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, and Mexico, as a country that stands out in Latin America, are the markets that are most aware of the importance of soft skills,” says Jimmy Naraine. The explanation for this variability comes from Enrique Dans: “It is the pendulum rule. Until now we were very interested in technological profiles. But as more and more people are now mastering technology, and because it changes at lightning speed (what you know today is obsolete tomorrow), organizations are shifting their focus onto more durable skills, albeit unevenly. In markets like the U.S., where there is a lot of job availability, soft skills are what makes candidates stand out from the crowd. Spain, however, is a market with a high demand for jobs, and these skills are not taken into account as much. [Spain is] still a country of services, with a rather archaic way of running companies. Talent is not valued as much, and that is why young people with some ambition go abroad; moreover, they are paid better.”

New résumés for new job skills

How does a company evaluate the soft skills a potential candidate has? It is not easy, according to Vicente Gómez, managing partner of g2Talentum, a human resources company focused on high quality, precision selection processes. “We don’t have much faith in tests. We are more oriented towards conducting competency interviews. We ask about experiences they have had and how they have managed them, or we present them with practical cases that we ask them to solve,” he explains.

Inteligencia Artificial
Job interviews are increasingly aimed at asking competency questions about experiences that candidates have had and how they have managed them, or they are presented with practical cases that they are asked to solve.vgajic (Getty Images)

Gómez does not only talk about soft skills, but also about values. This is something that they always take into account in selection interviews, especially if they are for positions that involve communication (internal or external), implementing transversal projects, negotiation, commercial profiles, business development, or project management. “Values are the concepts that are important to a person as an individual. For example, is a candidate more oriented towards themself, or the company or project. Respect and honesty would be other values to take into account,” he says.

Many résumés are also beginning to adapt to this new reality, emphasizing those innate abilities that were previously reduced to a paragraph at the end. Generally cheesy and tired, they read something like: “I consider myself a very responsible person with high expectations of myself and a great ability to work in a team and learn from others.” “A new way to write a résumé,” explains Gómez, “is to put a personal description in which the most relevant skills and competencies are highlighted after one’s personal data, and before the qualifications and work experience.”

In an increasingly digital and technological world, everything that refers to our human dimension is emerging as desirable. “There is something, apart from skills and qualifications, that is not quantifiable and that is tremendously attractive to us,” says Jimmy Naraine. “That’s why a lot of business is done outside of the workplace, on trips, at events, and at parties. And I think we could call that humanity.”

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