Personal Finance

The skills employers are looking for

Stacy Rapacon, special to
A job seeker (left) shakes hands with a recruiter during a WorkSource Seattle-King County Aerospace, Maritime and Manufacturing job fair in Seattle on Oct. 6, 2015.
David Ryder | Bloomberg | Getty Images

If you've heard talk about a "skills gap" in the labor force lately, it was likely in reference to the short supply of potential employees with the right technical skills. But another kind of skill is in even greater demand.

Employers are increasingly seeking employees with so-called soft skills, or baseline skills, such as writing, communication and organization.

A recent study from job market research firm Burning Glass Technologies analyzed 25 million online job postings from more than 40,000 sources over the past year and identified the most sought-after skills.

"We tend to focus on technical skill requirements, but the reality is employers are very vocal about the need for people to have foundational or baseline skills," said Matt Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass. "Even in jobs that are really denominated in technical terms, it's still very important to employers that people have the right soft skills."

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Indeed, across all jobs, an average of 1 in every 3 skills requested in a posting is a baseline skill. And in jobs generally associated with specific technical skills, such as in the health-care and information technology fields, 1 in 4 skills listed by employers are soft skills.

Communication skills ranked as the most or second-most desired baseline skill in all industries. Organizational skills and writing abilities were also in high demand across the board and came in second and third among the most commonly requested skills by employers overall.

Specifically in information technology jobs, communication skills and writing were the most sought-after soft skills. In health care, computer and typing skills, as well as planning, research and problem-solving skills, were among the top job requirements. Finance job postings were often seeking employees who are proficient in Microsoft Office, detail oriented and have superior customer service skills.

Where the jobs are: Health and tech are in high demand

The need for these types of skills is not entirely new. In his experience, Paul McDonald, senior executive director at job-placement company Robert Half, has been seeing a need for these abilities since the 1980s. But over the past decade, demand has been driven higher by companies' rising investments in advancing technology.

"The computer's doing more work for the worker and the organization," he said. "So those in-demand individuals are having to do less, for instance in accounting, number crunching and more interpreting and presenting the results earlier in one's career."

Other skills McDonald points to as necessary for increasing your employability are being team-oriented, adaptable and able to follow instructions. If you're hoping to move up the corporate ladder, you may need to emphasize having other baseline skills, such as supervisory and management skills and the ability to negotiate.

If you feel these talents fall beyond your natural skill set, don't hang up your interview suit just yet. "Not all of us are born with great soft skills," said McDonald. He recommends working with a mentor or someone else you trust to help you identify your personal skills gap and then figure out a way to work on areas where you are lacking.

For example, if you have trouble with writing or public speaking, he suggests taking classes or joining communication-development organization Toastmasters International. "Many individuals feel as though, if they have a deficiency, that's just the way they are. But you can train to your weakness," he said. "Don't accept it as status quo, and you will be able to develop these skills."

Once you hone any of these abilities, be sure you show them off and highlight them in your resume or curriculum vitae. Emphasize any work experience you have that demonstrates the specific skills a potential employer is seeking. If you have yet to enter the work world, find opportunities to exhibit these skills in extracurricular activities and volunteer work and stress those experiences in your CV.

The interview stage of the application process is the perfect opportunity to showcase your communication and presentation skills. Also, many employers ask behavioral or scenario-type questions to see how you'd handle certain situations. Be prepared to answer them in a way that clearly expresses your problem-solving talents, creativity and ability to think critically. You may even be asked to provide such answers in writing.