Equipping Learners With Soft Skills and Proficiency

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The demand for new skill sets in today’s job market is continuous. However, in the IT industry, the demand often becomes a requirement. Consequently the content, structure and delivery of training for IT professionals continuously change. “The early days of certification training were ad hoc, but now it is much more rigid with points to direct learning,” said Dave Egan, course director for Global Knowledge, a provider of training, enterprise learning services and software solutions for IT and management professionals. “In my certification classes I try not to train just for certification. The class is designed to teach a set number of skills and emphasize the required skill sets. And at the end of the class, students have definitely practiced all the skill sets that they need to know about.”


Training in the past focused primarily on one specific platform or software. Today, training focuses on multiple platforms and computer programs and the process of integration as well as soft skills. However, it’s often difficult to squeeze soft-skills education into a course already jam-packed with technical skill requirements. For Egan, the class or type of certification determines the amount of time he spends on soft skills.


“In a RHCE (Red Hat Certified Engineer) exam, there are not a lot of soft skills required,” Egan said. “It is a very rigid class. There are a lot of labs to complete in a rigid class like this, and it is my job to prepare them by trying to get them through the labs, all the while trying to get them through the concepts and required background knowledge as to why things work this way or how things relate to other things. Thorough soft-skills training is seen more in project management certifications. In technical courses there isn’t much requirement for that. But I do talk about things, like as an administrator you should set a standard, know how not to back down, how to maintain security and know how to handle common arguments in order to keep a security standard in an organization.”


For difficult courses, such as the RHCE certification course, Egan tries to incorporate soft-skills education as a break from the technical jargon and processes. “We talk about soft skills in class, and it is more the general topics such as leadership, motivation, how to run meetings, time management, etc.,” he said. “I bring it up on a regular basis as a way to fill in some of the time and as a way to lighten up the load because in a technical course we are pouring information at them at an incredible rate. Once in a while their brains just need a chance to relax.”


Egan said a balanced and blended learning method is essential so he doesn’t overwhelm learners with technical information. “Information needs to be displayed in a certain way, it has to be explained as clearly as possible and reinforced with labs and exercises in class,” he said.


With more IT professionals moving up the corporate ladder into management positions, soft-skills education has earned a place in most course curricula. Because of this new demand for soft-skills education, project management certifications are on the rise. “Soft skills are absolutely necessary for someone that wants to move ahead, standout in their organization and wants to be an exemplary employee. Leadership, motivation, knowing how to deal with people, knowing how to speak, knowing how to communicate—whether it be written, verbal or body language—they are all necessary,” Egan said. “I have written a class specifically for that, which is led by people like me who are technical but also know what the benefits of soft skills are.”


The delivery of soft-skills education is more difficult than technical-skills instruction. According to Egan, knowing the students, their personalities, history and goals is critical to equip learners with the necessary soft skills. “You always want to take into account who your students are, what their personalities are, how they are going to handle the information, how they fit in the class as a whole, whether or not they are going to talk and whether they might talk too much,” he said.


Soft-skills education often is delivered through role-playing activities, but according to Egan, this is not always the best method, especially in technical courses. “In a soft-skills course we have a lot of role-playing but not in a technical course because most of the time in a technical atmosphere the students want the information spoon fed to them,” he said. “Role-playing is something I find a lot of students don’t enjoy doing. In my last leadership class, there were two people that were good at role-playing, but there were also three other individuals that had weaker personalities. It just didn’t matter how you tried, they were not able to let loose. Their creativity had been stamped out of them, and they were too easily ambushed by people that were quick thinkers. So in that case, I had to spend a lot more time with them trying to develop their ways of dealing with adversaries and people with strong personalities. How they could go around it, how to soften the interface and how to deal with someone that is difficult, and that is one of those soft skills that is hard to deal with in all aspects of a technical field.”


Today’s IT curricula are constantly evolving and soft-skills education has become more of a requirement than an option for trainers. It’s important for trainers to stay up-to-date on the current skill-set demands as well as evaluate their training methods for each and every class they teach.


–Cari McLean, carim@certmag.com

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