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Report Examines Competencies Needed to Succeed in Workforce

A new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) pinpoints the five most in-demand competencies across the labor market. Those work skills include communication, teamwork, sales, customer service, leadership, problem-solving and complex thinking, all of which can yield higher earnings.

The intensity in which workers use these competencies, along with their education level, can also affect their earnings, according to the report titled “Workplace Basics: The Competencies Employers Want.”

Dr. Megan L. FasulesDr. Megan L. Fasules

“In a nutshell, the report looks at what competencies are demanded in the labor market, as in what is judged as the highest level and most important competency that you need for your job,” said Dr. Megan L. Fasules, assistant research professor and economist at Georgetown University.  “But also what competencies are rewarded monetarily, which have labor-market value.”

Data for the report was retrieved from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Information Network. According to the research, the past 50 years have shown structural changes to the economy that have caused the demand for cognitive competencies to increase and the demand for physical competencies to decrease.

Though labor economists have been privy to the competencies needed to reflect this change in the market since the early 1980s and 1990s, Dr. Anthony P. Carnevale, director and research professor at Georgetown and co-author of the report, noted that “the question then becomes, ‘How do people get these skills?’” Education beyond high school has become the benchmark which employers use to determine if people can learn and adapt to competencies needed for their jobs, he added.

Dr. Anthony P. CarnevaleDr. Anthony P. Carnevale

“Employers find furthermore that people with postsecondary education are trainable,” he said. “They are capable of learning these skills and honing them on the job and are more adaptable to changes on the job.”

While every occupation requires a combination of different competencies to succeed, jobs in which cognitive competencies are used most intensively tend to be held by workers with higher levels of education, according to the report. In fact, 77% of the workers who use communication (the no. 1 most in-demand competency across every occupation) have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 10% of workers who use strength and coordination abilities most intensively.

The report stated that a one-quartile increase in the intensity with which workers use communication competency within a job is associated with an average earnings premium of 20%. Similarly, a one-quartile increase in the intensity with which workers use problem-solving and complex thinking is associated with an average earnings premium of 19%.

However, according to the report, communication can still yield below-median earnings at the highest intensity for workers with a bachelor’s degree, but higher within STEM occupations, in contrast to its generally high earnings premium across the labor market.

Typically, those in STEM make an average of $81,600. Nearly 73% of STEM workers have a bachelor’s degree or higher, but they also have a set of specialized skills for their jobs such as digital technology, mathematics, computer science, engineering and physical science, which yield higher earnings. Likewise, competencies that are in lower demand overall, such as engineering and mathematics, often still yield high earnings for workers in the occupations in which they are in high demand.

“If you want to make money, and that’s not the only reason you go to college, and if you’re thinking in terms of a career you got to think, ‘What does my specific field of study bring? Is it worth something?’” said Carnevale.

The report is particularly important for workers, students, educators and policymakers, said Fasules. “Workers and students can look at this data and see what competencies they might be lacking, what competencies they might need,” she said.

Educators can also work to build a curriculum that includes both specific and general competencies for students, while policymakers can work on “training and education reform” that include these competencies, so students can succeed in the workforce, Fasules added.

Both Carnevale and Fasules agreed that economic recessions tend to automate some occupations, which will then decrease the demand for physical competencies.

“There has been a historical shift for seeing the physical competencies decrease in demand and cognitive competencies increase in demand. And with recessions we tend to see those trends amplified,” explained Fasules. “So, with the Great Recession, we saw an increase in education demands for more bachelor’s degrees and would expect we see the same here, and that tends to correlate with the increase in demand for cognitive competencies.”

The researchers estimate that, on average, 28% of tasks within all occupations are at risk of automation. In particular, data shows that physical and low-level cognitive tasks are particularly susceptible to automation.

And though healthcare support is the most-needed and the highest-risk occupational group, given the global health crisis, the report still finds it is also the lowest-paid. Despite higher levels of education or even more intensive use of in-demand competencies, the earnings premium for healthcare support workers is relatively low.


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