What employers want

The Hartford insurance company coaches and mentors its apprentices on the soft skills they will need for success. (Photo: The Hartford)

John Kinney has seen many changes during his 22 years in the insurance industry. He believes one of the most dramatic shifts that has occurred over the last decade or so has been the rise in customer expectations.

“People want what we describe as an Amazon-like experience when they deal with us,” says Kinney, head of claims for national insurance company The Hartford.

Kinney is referring to how Amazon and other large companies have transformed the consumer experience by using technology to deliver highly personalized, on-demand service. Because consumers are used to getting what they want, when they want it, they have come to expect the same level of service from all of their daily interactions.

Editor’s note: This excerpt comes from the current issue of the Community College Journal, which the American Association of Community Colleges has published since 1930.

This shift in expectations has made problem solving and interpersonal skills, which have always been valued to some degree, even more critical.

“Not only must our claims employees satisfy the technical aspects of the job, but they also have to serve as the face of our company in people’s time of need,” Kinney says. “How do we provide a level of service to our customers that will encourage them to promote our brand to their friends and family? You need somebody who is really good at building rapport.”

Kinney isn’t alone in his assessment. Employers across a wide variety of industries say the so-called “soft” skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, communication and collaboration have grown in importance as rapid advancements in technology have transformed their operations.

According to a survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, problem solving and the ability to work well in a team are the attributes that employers most desire among new hires (see sidebar). Yet, these are often the skills that employers struggle the most to fill.

As these skills continue to grow in importance, employers are looking to community colleges for help in teaching and assessing them.

Implications on technology

Public utility company Duke Energy isn’t just looking for engineers and technicians who can design and run the systems needed to deliver electricity to its 7.6 million customers across six states. The company also needs line workers with the problem solving and communication skills needed to work in teams effectively as they respond to emergencies in the field.

“One of the main roles of a line worker is to troubleshoot potential issues with a customer,” says Stan Sherrill, vice president of talent acquisition and workforce development for the company. “They must be able to assess the situation, identify and diagnose the issue, and find solutions to the customer’s concern. This process takes independent problem solving and critical thinking skills to be successful.”

Duke Energy’s business is a good example of how technology is revolutionizing key operations. The company is in the process of transforming its electrical grid from an analog to a digital infrastructure.

“This will help us better serve our customers and communicate more easily with them,” Sherrill says. “We’ll be able to understand their needs and where outages are more effectively, so that we can respond quickly — including through self-healing technology.”

Power line technician students at Cape Fear Community College. (Photo: CFCC)

The skills required of employees continue to evolve as the company introduces more technology into the field and its grid. “Our current workforce has to be much more accustomed to using technology in just about every facet of their work life,” Sherrill says. “We have deployed tablets and smart phones extensively in almost every field role now.”

Whereas the company used to physically inspect miles of power lines by helicopter, in many cases they are now using drone technology to accomplish this task. Solar farms located across the country feed real-time data to a single facility in Charlotte, where the panels are remotely monitored and controlled.

“The control room looks like something out of Star Trek,” Sherrill says. “Students have to be adept at understanding and interfacing with all of these various technologies that didn’t exist 20 years ago.”

Related story: Employers stress need for soft skills

We often think of millennials as being naturally tech-savvy, because they have grown up with smart phones and other technologies embedded in their lives. But just because they know how to swipe an app doesn’t mean they know how to critically analyze information.

“It’s less about the technology and more about the critical thinking skills required,” Sherrill notes.

The Hartford’s Kinney agrees.

“Our industry, like many, has become much more data-centric,” he observes. “What we have at our fingertips from a data perspective is really extraordinary.” Besides being effective communicators, employees must be able to assess all of this information and use it to make good decisions.

Read the full story in CC Journal.

About the Author

Dennis Pierce
is an education writer based in Boston.