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With increasing frequency, we are hearing about skills shortages in certain industries. To help to fill in some of these skills gaps, businesses are wanting to hire workers whose skills are broad as well as deep. Individuals with deep, expert-level skills as well as a broader foundation of knowledge and experience are referred to as ‘T-shaped’.
A 2022 government report by the Skills and Productivity Board (SPB) about Understanding Current and Future Skills Needs analysed skill mismatches and shortages across key areas in the UK economy. The findings of the report suggest that designing education and training programmes that develop occupation-specific skills alongside core transferable skills to create individuals who are ‘T-shaped’ is a sensible compromise to fill some of the current skills shortages, as well as those predicted in the future.
T-shaped employees enjoy working collaboratively within their teams as they are not just restricted to working in one niche area. They are readily available to use their broader skills to help to cover skills gaps at work and can reserve their expert-level talents for when they are specifically required.
T-shaped employees are becoming increasingly viewed as the future of the modern workforce.
What is a T-shaped employee?
A T-shaped employee or T-shaped person refers to certain qualities that make an employee especially valuable, or a candidate particularly employable.
T-shaped employees are highly valuable members of the workforce as they bring with them a specific skill set, complemented by experience, transferable skills and enthusiasm.
T-shaped employees have specialised skills as well as wider experience and knowledge. This means that they can work on expert-level tasks within their specialism, but also have the ability (and willingness) to take on other, more diverse tasks.
Some people are referred to as T-shaped because their skills and attributes can be described as forming a letter T:
- The vertical bar on the letter T refers to the depth of skills and expertise in a specific field.
- The horizontal bar on the letter T refers to the breadth of skills across different disciplines and the ability to learn and collaborate with others.
T-shaped employees are highly skilled in one area, with a broad range of skills, knowledge and experience in other areas. They are also willing to learn and work in partnership with those who have expert knowledge in a particular field, in order to improve their own skill set.
T-shaped employees are talented individuals who are successful within their own specialist roles and perform their functions and responsibilities at an optimum level, whilst also being able to effectively take on other tasks and complete them successfully.
What are T-shaped skills?
Employees with T-shaped skills will have:
- Broad knowledge and experience in multiple areas.
- Excellent skills in a specific area.
They will also be:
- Good at working with others in a collaborative environment.
- More focussed on the success of the team than on individual achievement.
- Happy to share knowledge and information.
- Willing to upskill.
- Good at helping others.
- Able to self-evaluate as well as provide feedback to others.
T-shaped employees are often more likely to possess the soft skills (sometimes referred to as interpersonal skills) that are beneficial in a working environment:
- Good at communication.
- Enjoy teamwork.
- Patient and tolerant.
- Good listeners.
They are usually also skilled at problem-solving or troubleshooting, due to their willingness to step into other roles or work together with others.
What are the advantages of having T-shaped skills?
Rather than only being skilled and experienced in a specific niche, having T-shaped skills means that you have broader experience and attributes that complement your deeper, finely tuned skills.
Some benefits of having T-shaped skills include:
- Makes you more employable.
- Can mean you are more likely to succeed in your chosen field.
- Those with T-shaped skills can make for a more positive working environment.
- Makes it easier to work with others and collaborate.
- T-shaped skills complement a workplace with a culture of continuous learning.
- T-shaped people can make effective managers/supervisors.
When you are thinking about becoming T-shaped, the more specific you can be about your expert-level skill the better. The deep skills a T-shaped person possesses should be precise. Simply identifying that you are an IT expert is not enough. It is better to be able to recognise your specific skill set within IT, for example cybersecurity, computer programming or data analytics.
What is a T-shaped team?
T-shaped teams are made up of T-shaped people. They are positive working environments with a focus on skill-sharing and collaboration. T-shaped teams are not reluctant to work together to solve problems or ensure that projects are completed and deadlines are met.
Rather than considering themselves experts and everyone else non-experts, members of T-shaped teams are not afraid to share skills and cross-train across disciplines. They don’t think about outperforming others, rather they want to perform well collectively.
Senior team members or managers often focus on the success and skill of their T-shaped teams as a whole, rather than picking out individual high achievers.
A successful T-shaped team usually has a cohesive goal in mind, even if this is made up of individual tasks and goals.
What are the benefits of a T-shaped team?
It is important for the future of certain parts of the economy that highly skilled individuals can be recruited. If these skilled individuals are also T-shaped this is extremely beneficial because it means future skills gaps can be either avoided altogether or covered by competent people. When these people can be sourced from within a business rather than through an agency or via a lengthy recruitment process this limits disruption to productivity.
T-shaped teams can work cohesively together, making problem-solving and troubleshooting far easier. This might mean that issues are overcome more quickly or problems are solved more efficiently.
Tasks that do not require an expert can be delegated to T-shaped employees who are able to utilise their broader skill sets (the horizontal line of the T) to complete them. This frees up the time of experts within an organisation to focus on more pressing matters. This is especially advantageous in a fast-paced, large organisation or in high-stakes industries where it is extremely important that the time of experts and high-level decision makers is utilised properly.
Working in this way and with a focus on collaboration will encourage cross-training. This is another way to upskill an already skilled workforce and promotes the sharing of skills and ideas.
For businesses this might mean:
- Output is increased; by cross-training, more work is possible using the same amount of people.
- Time is used more effectively (this also has a positive effect on deadlines, targets etc).
- Workers are more satisfied as they do not feel their skill set is being wasted.
- Innovation happens more often because staff work together, share ideas and work on different projects effectively.
- T-shaped teams inspire innovation and diversity.
Teams who are skilled, feel happy at work, continuously meet targets and work effectively can also have a positive effect on revenue and productivity. This, in turn, improves client/customer satisfaction which is something that should be at the heart of any successful business.
How to be a T-shaped employee
To be a T-shaped employee you need to be confident in your skills in one particular niche. You will want to build a diverse base to complement your specialised skill set.
If you have recently graduated or have experience that is limited to a particular role or industry, your skills may be more accurately represented by an I rather than a T. This is because even if you have the deep skill that forms the vertical line of the T, you lack the wide-ranging knowledge and experience that crosses the T at the top.
An I-shaped employee might be described as an expert or specialist that lacks general knowledge or experience.
Some of the benefits you might enjoy by becoming T-shaped include:
- Work is more interesting – Performing the same set of tasks day in and day out can become monotonous. T-shaped employees are able to diversify and it allows for work to be more varied.
- Boosts creativity – As T-shaped employees enjoy working together rather than in competition, it encourages ideas to flow. Those with broad experience can also be more creative as they can draw inspiration from multiple disciplines rather than being too focussed on one.
- T-shaped workers are empowered – Being T-shaped makes you stand out against competitors who have focussed on one niche and not diversified. This can make you more employable, more valued in the workplace and more likely to be considered for promotion.
Can anyone become a T-shaped person?
You may recognise yourself in the descriptions of a T-shaped person. However, if not, keep in mind that with the correct support, training and guidance it is possible for you to become more T-shaped.
The journey to becoming more T-shaped will be easier if people have:
- A willingness to learn.
- Some skills in a specific area (or working towards some).
- Teamwork skills (or enjoy collaborating).
- The ability to self-evaluate.
- A wide range of interests.
- Areas they know they want to improve on.
To help employees to think more about what the T shape means, managers or coaches can encourage them to identify their deep and broad skills. These could be skills that they already possess or want to work towards.
By writing these down and creating their own T, employees might find it easier to visualise and start to make a plan about how they can meet their goal of being a T-shaped person.
Managers can ask their employees who are interested in exploring the concept of being T-shaped:
1. What skills do they possess expert knowledge in? (This could also be something they are working towards or training in if this forms part of a wider plan).
2. What skills/knowledge are they using constantly or consistently (and could teach others about)?
3. What are they able to do adequately (with no or minimal supervision)?
4. What skills are they still learning or being introduced to?
5. What do they want to learn?
Once people can visualise what their T might look like they can start to think about what they can do to become more T-shaped. This might include mentoring or coaching or some additional training.
Commitment and support from management is vital if workers are to reach their goals.
A mix of hard and soft skills is necessary to become a T-shaped person.
Hard skills form the backbone of the T; they are technical skills that can be easily identified and measured such as:
- IT/Computer programming skills.
- Language proficiency.
- Design skills.
Soft skills are also an important asset of T-shaped people. These include skills such as:
- Critical thinking.
T-shaped people are highly skilled in a particular area – this is represented by the vertical line of the T. Their deep skills are also underpinned by a broader skill set and experience – this is shown by the horizontal line at the top of the T. They make for skilled, highly adaptable employees who thrive on collaboration and are excellent communicators.
Learning to become more T-shaped can increase your chances of being successful in your chosen career. It can also make you more desirable than competitors as you are able to show that you have more than one specialism and can fill in skills gaps in the workforce.
As a T-shaped employee, you should also fit in well with a T-shaped team where you can enjoy working towards common goals together, sharing knowledge and celebrating collective success.
Employees who can make use not only of their specialisms and technical skills but also their wider knowledge base are key to sustaining industries that are struggling with skills shortages. Elsewhere, the benefits of using a T-shaped team make it a sensible model to consider in the wider context of business.
With all of this in mind, it makes sense that the future of the UK workforce is likely to continue to become significantly more T-shaped.