When it comes to skills employers are looking for in all new hires cognitive skills lead the list, and having these skills can boost a workers’ earnings by more than 10%, according to a new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW). And while postsecondary education is one way to acquire those skills and signal to your potential employer your abilities, it’s not the only way to get them.
Workplace Basics: The Competencies Employers Want identifies these highly-valued skills—part of a worker’s overall competencies—as communication, teamwork, leadership, and problem solving and complex thinking.
“What we’ve done is to quantify something that in a sense we already knew. Employers are looking for those competencies because the economy changed and demanded those competencies across a much wider swath of the workforce than it used to be,” explains Anthony Carnevale, CEW director and co-author of the report.
“These competencies were once required only for the bosses, that’s not true anymore. They’re now required up and down the line.”
Carnevale says that employers used to hire for a specific hard skill and would promote from within. He offers this example. “If you had five people on the loading dock and one of them be needed to be moved to manage the others, you’d pick the one that had communication skills, leadership skills, and a specific skill required to run the technology on the loading dock.”
He says while a lot of workers in the past would pick up these skills through the work experience, that scenario has shifted. “What’s changed—and is tough on new entrance into the labor market—is that employers want you to have those skills on day one because the entry level job requires them.”
“Employers want you to have those skills on day one because the entry level job requires them.”
It’s Not Just About a Degree
While formal education is not the only way for workers to acquire competencies
demanded across the labor market, postsecondary degrees and certifications is a way for workers to provide information about their likely cognitive competencies to potential employers.
The report finds that the jobs in which cognitive competencies are used most intensively tend to be held by workers with higher levels of education. In fact, 77% of the workers who use communication most intensively have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 10% of workers who use strength and coordination abilities most intensively, according to the findings.
“When it comes to earnings, education matters, but so do general competencies. Workers need to focus not just on college degrees, but on the knowledge, skills, and abilities they need to reach high earnings in their occupations,” says Carnevale.
There’s an increase in the value of specific skills such as welding, he says, but also an increase in demand for those highlighted cognitive skills. “Sometimes a certificate in HVAC is worth more than a lot of BA, especially in education and counseling and social work and early childhood services,” he adds.
“So, in the end, it is always about specific and general skills. You can be a great communicator, but I don’t want you building my bridge. But, if you’re going to be an engineer who builds my bridge, you need to be a good communicator.”
“You can be a great communicator, but I don’t want you building my bridge. But, if you’re going to be an engineer who builds my bridge, you need to be a good communicator.”
The report cites examples in which “intensive use” of in-demand competencies can enable workers with lower levels of formal education to earn more than those with higher levels of formal education.
“For example, high school-educated workers who use communication most intensively in healthcare professional and technical occupations have higher median earnings ($52,300 per year) than the median for workers with some college or an associate’s degree ($49,200 per year) in the same occupational group.
Likewise, for workers in blue collar occupations, higher levels of formal education only lead to a slight earnings premium, but using competencies at the highest intensity can enable those with less education to earn more than their counterparts with more education.”
Technology Plays a Role in the Emphasis on Cognitive Skills
“Technology changes the way work gets organized,” Carnevale tells us. Specific skill has always been valuable. But as technology continues to substitute for some of the work humans do, the human skills are increasing in value. This emphasis on communication, leadership, and problem-solving skills will continue.
“Technology changes the way work gets organized.”
“Technology usually increases the value of people’s general skill, because they’re able to exploit the technology. If you look at most of the improvements in modern workplaces now, come while people are doing the work. So that they get better and better and better and better at it. And, they sharpen their both specific and general skills in the process,” argues Carnevale.
“It’s always been that way, but now employers hire people knowing that’s the way it works. They don’t want to hire somebody who has very specific skills for the jobs they’re hiring for without knowing that they can handle change and deal with other people, because that’s what they’re going to be doing.”
You can read the full report here: Workplace Basics: The Competencies Employers Want