Learners to Earners Summit: ‘Soft skills’ in demand as employers fight for workers

Job Recruiting
People have choices right now.

Florida currently has more job openings than job seekers, and the state’s workforce system has had to adapt to help businesses fill those positions.

“The last year has been pivotal for the workforce system,” CareerSource Florida President Michelle Dennard said. “The workforce system provided over 60,000 services to businesses over the last year.”

Denard, speaking at the Florida Chamber Foundation’s Learners to Earners Workforce Solution Summit, led a panel on how the state’s workforce system has adapted over the past year to help job seekers find work and, increasingly, help businesses stand out in a crowded job market.

She was joined on the panel by CareerSource Central Florida President Pam Nabors and CareerSource Polk President Stacy Campbell-Domineck. Despite their regions being anchored by vastly different industries, both have run into the same challenges.

“In Central Florida and Orlando, hospitality and tourism literally shut down. And now, with the entire country wanting to come to Florida, particularly to Disney World, Universal and all the great attractions that we have here, the hospitality and tourism industry is very much needing workers but there are right now more jobs in those industries than workers — for many different reasons — but we’re working very hard for hospitality and tourism,” Nabors said.

One of the reasons is that many former tourism workers, particularly in Central Florida, have been transitioning to jobs in logistics, health care or public safety.

Employees have been successfully transitioning out of the tourism and hospitality industry because the skills they’ve picked up along the way are in high demand right now, Denard and Nabors said.

“I think all of us who grew up in Florida worked in the hospitality industry at one point or another. That’s where you learn important skills like listening and communication and how to deal with angry customers. These are all things that we still use every day,” Denard said.

Nabors seconded, saying “just about every other industry” values customer service skills.

“In fact, that has been an area we even had a success story this past year, about a theme park worker who had actually gone out into training for medical assisting after she had been furloughed. She was able to get a new career. And really, that was seamless for her other than to learn the technical components around the health care industry itself,” she said. “Customer service — just listening, that ability to pivot and critically think, problem solve — are all competencies that are transferable to so many different industries.”

Campbell-Domineck said workers in her region faced the same challenges as those in the Orlando-area, and the transportation industry has provided longterm career opportunities to many of those who lost their pre-COVID jobs.

“With all the driving and all the delivery and things of that nature, you have transportation needing more workers, obviously truck driving. One story I would share with you is a young man in our region who was laid off from a warehouse, obviously as a result of COVID, decided in that short moment he would go back to school to be a truck driver, and now he is quite successful and he’s driving all over everywhere.”

Whether gig work or a full-on career, Nabors said employers today are seeking “individuals who have all of the qualities that we call ‘soft skills.’” In addition, employers are looking for “technical competence.”

“To be able to use the internet, the web applications on their phone, there are a lot of jobs that require that. Basically you’re walking around with an iPad all day and everything that you’re doing is part of that process, and so (employees) have to be flexible and have that agility to be able to work in that setting.”

Employers do want workers who are already trained to do the job, whatever it may be, but they are learning to adjust to the current reality.

“That’s a bit of a challenge, because this pandemic has created a shift in how we do business,” Campbell-Domineck said.

The workforce system has been helping small businesses overcome the learning curve for virtual interviews. They’ve also had to teach the job seekers who are more comfortable with in-person interviews how to make a good impression over video chat.

“I remember one employer saying to us in a roundtable with the Chamber that ‘I want to be able to touch and feel — not really — the person in the room today for that interview, I want to be able to get that connection to determine whether or not that’s the right talent, the right person for this particular company,’” she said.

Employers who can’t shake that mentality may find their job openings go unfilled.

Nabors said her region currently has more than 1,000 job orders and small businesses are finding it hard to compete. Major employers such as Amazon and AdventHealth are snapping up workers because they make it easy. What’s holding small businesses back is their desire “to return to the way that they had hired in the past.”

“You have to be as an employer three clicks away from finding that person. If you make it difficult, if you have hoops and your HR department takes forever to get back to a potential employee, you’re probably going to lose that potential employee,” she said.

That’s “because people have choices” right now.

“In Polk County, it seems like everybody’s hiring,” Campbell-Domineck said. She added that there is no shortage of available workers, but employers should be willing to bend some job requirements.

“You just take a look at the number of students who have graduated from college in the last week or in the last two weeks, what they may not have are those years of experience, and they can’t get that unless we give them those years of experience,” she said.

“It’s really important that we recognize that sometimes we have to grow our own talent most times because if I come into your company skilled, it might not be the exact skill that you need, it might not be the way your company does things. So, we’ve got to prepare to help individuals succeed in our workplaces.”

Drew Wilson

Drew Wilson covers legislative campaigns and fundraising for Florida Politics. He is a former editor at The Independent Florida Alligator and business correspondent at The Hollywood Reporter. Wilson, a University of Florida alumnus, covered the state economy and Legislature for LobbyTools and The Florida Current prior to joining Florida Politics.


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