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August 2015 Issue
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Soft skills harden you up

Employers are looking for evidence of soft skills like teamwork. Photo: Outward Bound

Matthew Pike discovers how building rafts and climbing rocks may be the key to you getting a job

Imagine you’re an employer. A new position has become available and you have 20 applicants who all have the qualifications and experience you’re looking for. How do you decide who to invite for an interview and who to send a letter of ‘thanks, but no thanks’?

One feature of a CV that might just help an applicant stand out from the rest is what is known as ‘soft skills’. The term might evoke visions of sewing pillows, but the reality is quite different.

Soft skills are the likes of leadership, teamwork, confidence, planning, decision making – skills that are useful in any profession, but which are difficult to prove you have. No-one goes to university to study confidence.

However, institutions such as Hillary Outdoors, Outward Bound (OB) and any number of outdoor education courses provide youngsters and adults with the opportunity to develop such skills, often without even realising it. Building a raft or kayaking down rapids might seem like great fun (and it is) but the skills developed here could be the difference between a thumbs up or a thumbs down from a prospective employer.

“We do find employers look for soft skills and for evidence young people have demonstrated some of those skills,” says OB chief executive Victor Klap, who adds that employers have said if they see evidence of these skills in a job application it’s an important advantage over equivalent applicants.

At the end of each eight or 21-day course, the students receive a certificate which Klap says shows they have experience of working under pressure.

“On day one, everyone stands in a circle with 13 people they don’t know. They have to try and figure how to make the group work under pressure with no pre-designated leader. There’s a lot of intensity in the course.”

The activities range from off-track tramping to climbing, swimming, running and kayaking. Klap says most people can do the activities but it’s the soft skills they develop the most.

“People say the most challenging aspect is developing soft skills,” says Klap. “For instance, one of the activities is sailing. Within the group, someone needs to assume some form of leadership and get others working together. Maybe the wind will drop – so what do you do then? There’s lots of on-the-hoof decision making required and they’re put under considerable pressure. The group has to deal with stress.”

It’s not just youngsters who take the courses. Businesses themselves send staff to OB because they believe the courses make a difference.

The likes of Mainfreight, Fisher & Paykel, Vodafone and Foodstuffs have all got involved. BETA, which helps train people for careers in construction and infrastructure, researched the impact of sending staff to an OB course. “The research showed there was noticeable improvement in soft skills within the organisation and comments from employees showed the course clearly led to organisational benefits,” said Klap.

One person was able to step up to a foreman’s role, suggesting the skills don’t just benefit those new to the job market.