Hard Skills: The Secret Weapon in a Competitive Job Market

10/5/2016 - Monocle Research Department

Entering the job market with a university degree and no knowledge of hard skills is like being a superhero without special powers. By hard skills I mean the ability to use a range of computer programming software to manipulate, complete, validate, and ultimately to convert data into information.  

Here’s a hard truth for today’s graduates who are looking to enter the job market: the assumption that a formal education is enough to land – and keep – you in a dream position is holding you back.  

While you may have left university armed with theories about your industry’s intricate inner workings, chances are you’re lacking in practical, hard skills – and those are what you’re going to need in the fast-paced working world. I meet many graduates with an Honours degree, but they’ve never put together a professional presentation, compiled a computer program, or pulled information from a database. These days, you have to be able to demonstrate you can do your job faster – and better – than anyone else, and hard skills will help you do that.  

Skills such as advanced Excel and Visual Basic for Applications, basic database logic skills or programming – for example SQL – will distinguish “potentially decent” employees from exceptional ones. Without them you’re like Batman without his tool belt of cool gadgets. You have a ‘degree cape’ and a ‘distinction mask’, but you are limited in your ability to add value. If you want to up your hard skill ability, keep some of the following tips in mind.  

Firstly, be flexible. Flexibility and versatility in the workplace are highly sought after attributes. In a competitive working environment, employees with a range of varied hard skills are likely to be the most useful to their employers.  

Think about the backline of a rugby team, like the All Blacks, in which great players are able to switch positions quickly, and efficiently, if needed. A player could be a fly-half in one game and act as wing in the next. That’s an efficient team, one which is flexible enough to beat all competitors under the right circumstances.  

That ability to move around and work on various tasks is gold in the workplace, especially when resources are scarce and the competition is fierce. When learning hard skills, don’t feel pressured to focus on just one. Learn as many as you can – at least on a basic level.  

Secondly, even if you don’t have hard skills currently, you need to understand just how important they are. When I’m interviewing candidates, and I mention a skill, I don’t want to be told, “I can’t do that”. I want to hear, “I’d love to learn to do that!”. We’re really testing people’s aversion to hard skills, and if they meet my question about coding by saying they “don’t want to be an IT person”, then I know they don’t want to grow, or keep up with the times. Those people will always have to depend on someone else.  

Thirdly, the broader your knowledge is, the more likely you are to find new and original ways to apply that knowledge to your work. Those who think outside of the box will stand out in any corporate environment.  

For example, Monocle once worked on a project that involved sourcing customer data on behalf of a large banking group, in order to compile reports required by the South African Revenue Service. Much to our dismay, we realised that much of the required information was on documents that were not in digital form and had to be manually scanned. One of our employees, of his own volition, took the initiative to teach himself to write code, in Python, that would convert scanned documents into characters in a database. This saved us and the bank countless hours and ensured successful delivery of the project.  

Finally, as employers, we expect graduates to arrive with a certain degree of inexperience. We recommend strongly communicating with your employer that you want to learn. After all, a great company will know that investing in you, will ultimately lead to efficiencies and benefits to the company itself.  

If you’re not a graduate – if you are one or two years into your career – and you still don’t have hard skills, you are probably already behind the curve. At Monocle we highly recommend getting as broadly skilled as possible, as fast possible, to help accelerate your career.

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