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In the Nation's Interest

The Skills Gap and the Seven Skill Sets that Employers Want: Building the Ideal New Hire

We’ve heard a lot about the “skills gap”.  Among employers having difficulty filling job openings in 2014, 35% reported that it was because applicants lacked the technical (aka “hard”) skills needed for the position.  Nineteen percent cited lack of “soft skills” – e.g., communication or teamwork – in applicants. [1]   The National Federation of Independent Businesses reports that among small businesses attempting to fill positions within the previous three months, the percentage reporting few or no qualified applicants for the position has remained above 40% since 2014, reaching a seasonally adjusted high of 47% last month.

If employers could design their ideal new hire, what would that person look like? How would they conduct themselves on the job?  What essential skills and knowledge would they have?

Of course, this will depend a lot on the opening in question.  Every job requires a variety of competencies: a combination of some narrower skills and knowledge specific to the job in question – so-called technical skills – as well as some more general skills (like teamwork or communication) that are useful across a broad range of jobs, which I’ll call general or fundamental skills.

Technical skills can be everything from knowledge of a programming language, to the ability to operate a particular piece of machinery, to the expertise specific to a profession like accounting, medicine, or the law.  Sometimes the skills and knowledge required are so idiosyncratic to a particular position that it makes sense for employers to train workers in those skills on the job – such as how to use a particular machine or firm-specific piece of software.  In other cases, the applicant herself will have invested in years of education prior to being hired to obtain the necessary knowledge and skills, as in the case of medical or nursing school.

However, in addition to technical skills, all jobs also require general skills, and some jobs primarily require general skills – ones that can be utilized across a wide variety of positions.

As I’ve argued in previous posts, we could make postsecondary education and workforce development more efficient and less costly, if we “unbundled” postsecondary degrees and made demonstrated competencies the primary unit of assessment and completion.  This contrasts with our current seat-time-based approach in which students accumulate a prescribed number of required credit hours that bundled together add up to a two- or four-year degree.  Under a competency-based approach, the required skills and knowledge for a particular degree or certification would be defined, and students might take more or less time to demonstrate mastery of those competencies and attain the degree.

Pursuing this approach means that it would be useful for job seekers (and providers of their education and training) to know the general skills and knowledge that employers want.  So what are those general competencies that are valuable across a broad range of jobs?

Recently I’ve been looking at surveys of employers to answer just this question, and certain themes have jumped out at me.

Personality and Character Traits

First, a certain number of the attributes that appear on these surveys as being important to employers strike me more as personality traits or preferences rather than competencies.  A good example is “strong work ethic,” which appears repeatedly in survey data as being important to employers.  I am not arguing that “strong work ethic” isn’t desirable in a new hire.  Of course we all want that in someone we’re hiring.  But I will argue that a strong work ethic is not something that one attains primarily through a class or training.  And even if our systems of education or training can be structured to encourage certain desired habits, behaviors, and traits – like a strong work ethic – it still is hard to imagine a standardized assessment that would allow someone to demonstrate that they had “mastered” this competency.  Therefore, for my purposes I am going to ignore those desired attributes of new hires from employer surveys that fall more on the personality-trait side of the spectrum and are less amenable to organized education or training. [2]

The Big Seven

Having excluded attributes that are either less “trainable” or very difficult to demonstrate through any sort of standardized assessment [3], the remaining skills and knowledge that appear repeatedly on employer surveys seem to me to fall into seven buckets of related skills that I call the Big Seven.  So, without any further ado, let me introduce them.

1. Teamwork
This one’s pretty self-explanatory.  It is hard to find an employer survey about desired skills where “ability to work effectively as part of a team,” does not appear somewhere near the top of the list.  Some of the more 21st century lists will add the twist of ability to “demonstrate presence as part of a virtual team.”  But whether real or virtual, teamwork is ubiquitous.

2. Communication, communication, communication
Some surveys and lists distinguish between oral communication and written communication skills, or even – demonstrating that 21st century flavor again – “new media literacy” in reference to social media.  Other surveys simply list “communication skills.” However one cuts it, a new hire’s ability to use language to express himself effectively inside and outside the organization is important to employers (and a skill that they often find deficient in their employees).

3. Quantitative and analytical skills/critical thinking
This bucket represents a range of skills and knowledge related to numeracy (that is the ability to work with numbers and statistics and – at higher skill levels – to use them to analyze situations).  But I also include here skills that encompass a more “analytical” approach to the world, such as critical thinking (another popular entry in most employer surveys).  Another relatively new entrant to these lists is the ability to understand and use data effectively – or as one list puts it, the “ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data-based reasoning.”  Given the growing importance and ubiquity of “big data,” in many occupations, including teaching, the ability to understand and use data effectively will become increasingly valuable in the labor market.

4. Creativity and problem solving in the real world
Another set of competencies that employers seem to value – based on how frequently they appear on employer surveys – is creativity, innovation, and the ability to solve problems that the individual has not encountered previously.  This latter aspect of being able to apply knowledge and expertise to “real world” settings seems to be another skill that employers find lacking in their new hires.

5. The ability to keep up in a rapidly changing world…
In older surveys this often appeared simply as “computer skills,” but now, given the rapid change in a wide variety of technologies, I have seen it expressed as “the ability to stay current on changing technologies and their applications to the workplace.”  (How many of you could operate the teleconferencing equipment in your workplace without the help of someone under the age of 35?  Be honest now…)  Given the ways in which the internet has transformed our world, I also include here, the “ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information from multiple sources” since the internet has both made it easier for us to find those multiple sources but also given us much more to keep up with.

6. ….While staying organized and keeping one’s head above water
Given the firehose of data, new information, new technology and just general change that many workers increasingly face in their jobs, another bucket of skills – again, based on employer surveys – has to do with being organized and having the ability to prioritize what is important and what is less so.  At higher levels, I group this with strategic planning or having a “design mindset” – i.e., “the ability to represent and develop tasks and work processes for desired outcomes”.

7. Diversity and cultural awareness
Last, but not least, among the Big Seven is a bucket of skills and knowledge related to being able to work effectively in organizations and markets that are increasingly global and diverse.  This runs the gamut from “awareness and experience of” diverse cultures (either inside or outside the U.S.)… to the ability to work with/get along with others from diverse cultures… to the ability to “operate” in different cultural settings.

So that rounds out my taxonomy of the Big Seven of general skills that employers are seeking and that are of value across a broad range of jobs.  You may disagree with my particular set of buckets.  Or which skills belong in which bucket.  Or which skills are teachable or not.  (If so, please send me an email. I do want to hear from you.)  But ultimately the number of buckets or where exactly a skill fits is not what’s important.

What’s important is our ability to identify a relatively small number of key competencies that are of value across a wide range of jobs, that can be taught, and where mastery can be demonstrated in a reasonably objective, standardized, and not-too-expensive way.  When we get there we’ll be a big step closer to competency-based education.  Stay tuned.



[1] Employers were able to give more than one reason, so survey responses across all reasons totaled more than 100%.

[2] For those interested, the list from various surveys includes: leadership, work ethic, dependability, ethics, initiative, drive/desire, self-motivated, entrepreneurial skills/risk taker, flexibility/adaptability, works well under pressure, interpersonal skills (relates well to others), friendly/outgoing personality, salesmanship/ability to influence others, tactfulness, detail-oriented, ability to learn/being trainable, positive attitude, confidence.

[3] I include “leadership” in the category of a skill that can be enhanced by training but that is very hard to assess in a standardized assessment of any reasonable length.  In contrast, even “soft” skills such as creativity or teamwork can be assessed in a standardized format if one allows for more sophisticated scenario exercises and/or group exercises.  Keep in mind that “standardized” is not the same as “multiple-choice bubble tests,” (though the latter can provide important insights and probably receive more disparagement than they deserve).