“What we have is an attitude shortage not a skills shortage”

Yesterday morning on the plane to Inverness I had one of those ‘plane conversations’ with the man on the seat next to me. He was telling me about his role in recruitment for a large company in the North of Scotland. And, being a careers adviser, I was asking him about what he looks for in applicants.

Now, in the careers world, there is a great deal of talk about skills – employability skills, transferrable skills, and technical skills. And then there are things like ‘skills gaps’ and ‘skills shortages’ that help to explain why we can have relatively high unemployment but employers can still struggle to fill jobs.

So, my companion and I were talking about this, and he told me that in his opinion “what we have is an attitude shortage, not a skills shortage”. His phrase really struck me, and got me wondering, although in my work as a careers adviser I talk a great deal about skills acquisition and articulation how much attention do I pay to attitude?

Perhaps it is the case that “skills” are easier to talk about – we tend to assume skills are ‘things’ that we can develop or collect (like clothes or books or other objects), but attitude is normally assumed to be more fundamental to a person. Indeed this is one of the things that my employer-friend was saying – that you can train someone in a skill, but personality is something that is more essential, more fixed. And where this assumption of personality as an essential thing makes it very desirable for an employer, it also makes it much harder to talk about as a careers adviser – after all how far can we or should we get involved in development of personality?

However, thinking about this I remembered reading Holmes’ (2001) critique of the skills agenda – he says, basically, that skills are not ‘things’ that we can collect, ‘skills’ are constructed through our social interaction and when we talk about skills, there is always some kind of reference back to the person behind them, to their identity. So, I was thinking, that this might work the other way around too – what if personality attributes aren’t ‘fixed’ and aren’t distinct from our activities? And then I remembered Susan Jeffers’ highly influential self-development book Feel the Fear and do it Anyway in which she emphasises that confidence can be built through actions – by ‘feeling the fear and doing it anyway’.

So, coming back to my companion on the plane… His comment about the attitude shortage rather than a skills shortage may have been a witty and acute criticism of the skills agenda; it may be a warning against a temptation in education and guidance to treat skills as ‘things’ that can be developed through a ‘check list’ approach. But on the other hand treating skills and attitude as separate things may overlook the fact that more often than not these are communicative concepts that are used to talk about the same kind of area – identity and self-development.


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