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Problem Solving -- The Silent Skill Employers Are Starting to Notice

Problem solving is something that wasn't mentioned very much a decade ago. Today, however, employers are listing it as a "critical employability skill."

This skill, which may have been overlooked in the past, is now getting the attention it deserves, and many are actively seeking employees that have it.

Graham Debling is the president of a consulting company that has done a lot of work in training, employability skills and post-secondary reform.

"I think they [problem-solving skills] are critical, but I don't think all employers realize that. I think we're in a period of transition," Debling says. "I've heard employers say that the problem was in the past that we encouraged our employees to leave their brains in the car park."

Debling explains that often employees are asked to come into the workplace to apply skills in a routine way.

"That doesn't work anymore," Debling says. "The needs and expectations of customers are changing so rapidly. They're more and more diverse....If you want to maximize your probability of survival, you've got to be able to meet the customer's unique expectations when they walk in the door."

That is where your problem-solving skills come in. It can be something small and informal, but it can make a big impact on how well you do your job. This means producing realistic solutions when there is always more than one right answer, you are often short on time, and you rarely have all the information. There is a huge need for people to learn problem-solving skills that it has caused concern at universities and colleges, who have been blamed for not adequately informing and teaching students about this skill.

Debling says that although programs differ from institution to institution, theories are often taught instead of practical applications.

"In the education context, people are asked to think critically without coming up with realistic solutions," he says.

Wayne Stark is the associate director of the arts and sciences placement office at a university. He is in contact with employers daily and teaches career development to about 1,000 students each year. He agrees with Debling that programs differ and that schools are sometimes criticized for not developing skills that can be applied in the workforce.

However, Stark does not think there is a lack of students with problem-solving skills. He says that employers often look for students coming out of arts and science programs because they are well-rounded and can look at things from a number of different angles. He says they also have excellent written and oral communication skills, which is an important element of problem solving.

"Employers are always looking for the top candidates. They talk to me about needing to find students with skills in these areas. I don't perceive that there's a lack of students with skills in these areas. I do perceive that employers are always trying to find students that have greater abilities in these areas. They're always looking for better," Stark says.

Stark says employers often try to find out an applicant's ability to problem solve through behavioral-based interviews. They ask for examples of how they may have reacted in the past to problems, challenges and difficulties.

"Based on their responses, employers can get a pretty good feel about how students may react on the job with them in similar situations....It's an important part of what employers are looking for, and I can attest to that," Stark says.

Lynn L. Samuels is a human resource consultant, specializing in recruiting, leadership development and training. She agrees the expectations of employers are high, and says the skill needs to be focused on during training.

"In talking with our technical staff, there is a suspicion about the level of skill being taught for this [problem solving], because there seems to be an expectation that these people should be coming out of school with a level of proficiency that we have not seen," Samuels says.

"I'm seeing the need, and it's one of the biggest things that is stressed right now -- especially in a software company."

So what do you do to be a better problem solver? "It's really how you work through something when you don't know the answer. I see it on the technical side and I see it on the non-technical side. I think that other people who make non-technical hires also need the problem-solving ability. That's the ability to take something that you may not be familiar with and follow it through to success."

Samuels suggests asking for some one-on-one help from a mentor. Although you can do some advanced reading and assignments to improve these skills, she says the most important thing is the feedback that you get.

In this new environment, work is problem-oriented and the problem solvers of this world are the successful workers of the future. This skill moves relationships forward and enhances career opportunities. Experts agree that it's a worthwhile skill to build.