In the Nation's Interest

What Skills Do Employers Say They Want in Online Job Postings?

by MONICA HERK December 08, 2015

Source: Burning Glass Technologies, The Human Factor, 2015

Approximately 60-70% of all job openings are now posted online, and over 80% of openings require a bachelor’s degree or higher.  What can these job listings tell us about the skills that employers are demanding?

I’ve blogged previously about the skills that employers want and the skills that CED Members report are hard to find.  Now Burning Glass, the job market analytics company, has come out with a fascinating new report on this topic based on nearly 25 million unique online job listings posted online between September 2014 and August 2015.

The Burning Glass report addresses two questions that I’ve raised in my previous posts:

1. What are the essential or baseline skills that employers are demanding across a wide range of jobs?
2. How hard is it to find people to hire with these skills?

Burning Glass’s approach to answering these questions was to analyze those 25 million job postings to see which skills employers list in ads for various occupations.  In short, they are applying text mining and analysis to the “big data” of online job listings.

To develop their list of most highly demanded baseline skills by occupational group Burning Glass simply analyzed which skills appeared most frequently in the online ads.  It turned out that 28 essential skills accounted for 97% of all baseline skills mentioned in the postings.1

Coming up with their “skills gap” list – that is the baseline skills that employers found it most difficult to hire for – was a little more challenging, and you may or may not find Burning Glass’s approach convincing.  In fact, we had a rather lively discussion about it here around the metaphorical CED water cooler, with some of us more skeptical than others!

To determine which baseline skills were in short supply, Burning Glass compared how frequently a skill was mentioned in online job listings for a particular occupation to how important that skill was deemed to be for that occupation according to the O*NET job listings.  (O*NET is the US Department of Labor’s listing of 974 occupations and their associated skills.)  If the skill was listed in online job postings much more frequently than one would expect given O*NET’s rating of the importance of that skill for the occupation in question, then Burning Glass concluded that employers were having difficulty finding workers with that skill.

For example, if according to O*NET, writing is “not very important” for most jobs in information technology (IT), but writing is mentioned as a requirement in 80% of online job listings for IT positions, then Burning Glass took this to indicate that writing skills were in short supply among IT workers.  As Burning Glass puts it, “It may seem counterintuitive, but in job ads employers are actually more likely to mention skills they’re worried won’t be commonly available in their candidate pool.”  Put another way, if employers have felt frustrated that their IT workers can’t write, they’re more likely to put it in their ad.

Just how convincing you find Burning Glass’s skills gap analysis will depend on how deeply you believe the frequency of mention of a skill in the online job postings correlates with the extent of a “shortage” of potential hires with that particular skill.  (As I mentioned we had a lively internal debate about it here at CED.)

Regardless of your judgment on that measure, Burning Glass’s findings relating to the easier question – what baseline skills are employers demanding – are definitely valuable.  What Burning Glass adds is the size of their dataset – nearly 25 million job listings – and the timeliness of their data.

So, without further introduction, the table at the top of this post shows Burning Glass’s ranking of the top 10 baseline skills in terms of importance across all job listings in their data set.  The last column shows the top 10 listing of the skills that Burning Glass interprets to be in shortest supply relative to demand.

What’s interesting about Burning Glass’s list is that there is some overlap between the list of “most important” essential skills (in blue) and the “hardest to hire” skills (in red), but not complete overlap.  Five of the top ten hardest-to-hire skills – supervisory skills, mathematics, presentation skills, project management, and time management – don’t appear in the top 10 of most important skills (those most frequently mentioned in the online job ads).  This is consistent with our finding from our CED Member survey this past fall—although the skills that rose to the top of the CED list differ somewhat from those in the Burning Glass report.

The Burning Glass report contained many additional useful and interesting nuggets.  Here’s my short list.

What’s the difference between a “baseline skill” and “technical skills”?

The Burning Glass report distinguished between baseline skills – which they defined as “skills sought by employers across multiple occupations [that] are not typically taught in training programs” – and technical skills – which they defined as “skills that can be taught and that are specific to a particular occupation or industry.”  Although I find Burning Glass’s distinction between skills that can and cannot be taught to be somewhat misleading (after all, writing, which they list as one of their baseline skills, clearly can be taught), their larger distinction between baseline and technical skills seems right on the mark.  What Burning Glass calls “baseline skills” corresponds to what I have been calling “essential competencies.”

Even more usefully, Burning Glass breaks out the relative importance of baseline versus technical skills by occupational group. 

Source: Burning Glass Technologies, The Human Factor, 2015

It makes intuitive sense that some jobs – like IT jobs or medical jobs – are more “technical” than others.  Yet even for the most technical jobs, a quarter of the required skills are still baseline skills.  On average across all jobs, a third of skills required are baseline skills – going up to as high as half of all skills for customer and client support skills.

Different jobs require different mixes of baseline skills

Another useful contribution of the Burning Glass report is that it breaks down the importance of the 28 baseline skills by occupational group.  Once again, it seems intuitively credible – obvious, even – that the importance of say, math skills, will vary by occupation, but this is the first report I’ve seen that uses actual job listing data and identifies needed skills by occupational groups in this way.

Source: Burning Glass Technologies, The Human Factor, 2015

As just one example, the table shows that creativity ranks only 19th in importance for baseline skills among jobs overall, but it rises to third in importance, unsurprisingly, for jobs in design, media, or writing.

Jobs at different skill levels also require different skill mixes

Just as the importance of different baseline skills varies across different occupations, it seems equally plausible that the importance of specific skills varies across the spectrum of high- to low-skilled jobs.  The Burning Glass report employs a useful categorization of low-skilled occupations (the average wage is less than the national living wage of $15 per hour), middle-skill occupations (pay a living wage and less than 80% of the openings require a BA), and high-skill occupations (more than 80% of the openings require a BA).  And much as one would expect, the baseline skills required vary by skill level.  For example, even among low-skilled occupations, 65% of job openings require basic computer skills, but the rates climb to 78% of openings for middle-skill occupations, and 83% for high-skill openings.

Why is this important?

To move closer to competency-based hiring and education, it will be necessary to know what essential competencies – or in the terminology of the Burning Glass report, “baseline skills” – employers are actually demanding.  The Burning Glass report brings us a step closer to understanding what those might be.  Indeed, one might imagine a more nuanced classification that breaks out important baseline skills by both occupational grouping and skill level within that grouping.  For example, within the healthcare professions even at the entry level a new doctor (a highly skilled occupation) and a new healthcare aide (a less-skilled position) probably require a different mix of baseline skills, such as different needs for analytical skills.

Moving towards a deeper, empirically-based understanding of what the baseline skills needed across various jobs will help employers, educators, and job seekers.  The Burning Glass report helps get us there.


1) Burning Glass’s analysis controlled for synonyms that referred to the same skill; for example, “speaking skills” and “spoken communication”.