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Employability Skills

How to develop and demonstrate your problem-solving skills

We all solve problems on a daily basis, in academic situations, at work and in our day-to-day lives. 
Some of the problems that are typically faced by students include: 

  • Putting together an argument for an essay
  • Dealing with an awkward customer when working part-time in a shop or restaurant
  • Thinking about how you are going to manage your budget to keep you going until the end of term
  • Working out why your printer won’t respond
  • Developing a strategy to reach the next level of a computer game.

Any job will also bring problems to be faced. It is important to show to a recruiter that you have the right skills to resolve these problems, and the personal resilience to handle the challenges and pressure they may bring.
You need to be able to: 

  • Evaluate information or situations
  • Break them down into their key components
  • Consider various ways of approaching and resolving them
  • Decide on the most appropriate of these ways

Solving these problems involves both analytical and creative skills. Which particular skills are needed will vary, depending on the problem and your role in the organisation, but the following skills are key to problem-solving:

  • Analytical Ability 
  • Lateral Thinking
  • Initiative
  • Logical Reasoning
  • Persistence 

Analytical and critical thinking skills

Analytical and critical thinking skills help you to evaluate the problem and to make decisions. A logical and methodical approach is best in some circumstances: for example, you will need to be able to draw on your academic or subject knowledge to identify solutions of a practical or technical nature. 
In other situations, using creativity or lateral thinking will be necessary to come up with ideas for resolving the problem and find fresh approaches 
Not everyone has these two types of skills in equal measure: for this reason, team working is often a key component in problem-solving. Further skills, such as communication, persuasion and negotiation, are important in finding solutions to problems involving people.

Whatever issue you are faced with, some steps are fundamental: 

  • Identify the problem
  • Define the problem
  • Examine the options
  • Act on a plan
  • Look at the consequences

This is the IDEAL model of problem-solving. 
The final stage is to put the solution you have decided on into practice and check the results. 

Why employers want these skills?

Any workplace, project or task will have challenges or obstacles which need to be overcome. If an organisation employs people who are adept at solving problems at all levels, it reduces the need for complex chains of command or lessens demand on managers' time. In short, it will help save time and therefore money. 
Analytical skills are perhaps becoming increasingly important; we are all bombarded with huge amounts of information every day. Being able to quickly yet comprehensively identify and evaluate the most important or relevant information for the organisation or your specific job role will be an increasingly useful skill. 

Examples of how analytical or problem solving skills can be developed or evidenced

  • Leisure activities (e.g. chess, logic games, computing).
  • Overcoming obstacles to achieve an ambition or goal.
  • Working in a customer environment and resolving complaints, particularly in situations where there is no protocol.
  • Research (e.g. for essays or projects, or within the workplace).
  • Particular achievements in the workplace (e.g. devising new working practices to improve efficiency, information systems development, diagnosing and rectifying faults or issues).
  • Creative solutions to coursework problems.
  • Identifying appropriate source material for assignments. 

Final thought...

A large cosmetics company had a problem in that some of the soap boxes coming off the production lines were empty. The problem was quickly isolated to the assembly line, which transported the packaged boxes of soap to the delivery department: some soap boxes went through the assembly line empty.
The management asked its engineers to solve the problem. They spent much time and money in designing a machine with high-resolution monitors manned by staff; to scan all the boxes on the line to make sure they weren't empty. 
A workman hearing about this, came up with another solution. He got a powerful industrial fan and pointed it at the assembly line. As each soap box passed the fan, the empty boxes were blown off the line. Moral: the simplest solution is usually the best!