Problem solving is something that wasn't mentioned very much a decade
ago. Today, however, employers are listing it as a "critical employability
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
"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."
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
Debling says that although programs differ from institution
to institution, theories are often taught instead of practical applications.
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
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
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,"
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.
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."
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.