Baseline Skills

The Human Factor: The Hard Time Employers Have Finding Soft Skills

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The Human Factor

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“Soft skills,” as the name implies, are an inherently fuzzy concept. It’s clear that employers need them and workers who lack them will struggle to find a job or get ahead. But what exactly are they? People skills? Emotional intelligence? Or as one Dilbert cartoon put it, “how to listen to idiots without snorting”?

Foundational or “soft” skills occupy an unusual position in the debate over America’s workforce. Employers say these skills are both crucial and hard to find.  But it has also been notoriously difficult to define what these skills are.  Categorizing them as a broad catch-all is convenient but does little to help focus training programs. Instead, there is a common assumption that these skills are natural capabilities.  “Works well with others” is a cliché on a school report card, but businesses grind to a halt when employees can’t meet deadlines, treat customers with respect, or waste time scrambling to properly format a document.

In this report, we try to define these skills based on what employers actually demand in job postings, and measure how difficult they are to find in the job market. Essentially, we have let employers speak for themselves, examining the signals employers send about their talent needs across millions of job postings. A skill consistently requested in job ads across broad swaths of industries and occupations  is clearly a baseline qualification in the job market. And when employers stress a skill requirement in a way that’s out of proportion to the traditional definitions of what a job requires, it tells us that skill is likely both important and hard to find.

Based on an analysis of millions of job postings across the United States, we found:

  • On average, one in three skills requested in job postings is a “baseline skill.” Baseline skills are in high demand by employers, although the proportion depends on the particular industry. Even in the most technical career areas (such as IT, Healthcare, and Engineering), more than a quarter of all skill requirements are for baseline skills.
  • Baseline skills aren’t limited to “people skills.” Certainly skills like customer service and organizational skills appear across the board in job postings, but so do skills like writing, as well as knowledge of specific software packages like Microsoft Word and Excel.
  • Employers appear to face real skill gaps in finding the baseline skills they need. We compared the emphasis placed on specific skills in job postings with what their actual importance should be, as determined by standard occupational profiles. A number of baseline skills are emphasized in the postings out of proportion to what traditional job definitions would indicate—suggesting that employers struggle to find people with these skills.
  • Writing, communication skills, and organizational skills are scarce everywhere. These skills are in demand across nearly every occupation—and in nearly every occupation they’re being requested far more than you’d expect based on standard job profiles. Even fields like IT and Engineering want people who can write.
  • Lower-skill jobs seem to face the widest gaps in baseline skills. Employers in fields such as Hospitality, Food and Tourism; along with Personal Care and Services; make particularly strong calls for skills like basic math.
  • Different occupations demand a different mix of baseline skills. There’s a perception that baseline skills are a universal skill-set needed in any workplace. In fact, while it’s true that all baseline skills are in demand, we found the specific set of skills employers want varies considerably–and predictably–from occupation to occupation. There are clusters of baseline skills for every occupation. For example, Design jobs emphasize writing, creativity, and attention to detail; but place less emphasis on customer service or management skills. By contrast, Operations jobs are more likely to demand project management, supervisory, or problem-solving skills.
  • Baseline skill gaps may be specific to a particularly career—but not necessarily core skills in the field. Often, these gaps represent skills that are not covered in traditional training programs, but which are still critical to performance. For example, math skills are particularly emphasized in customer service and hospitality / food service job postings, where workers are less likely to have developed quantitative skills. IT employers, by contrast, are more likely to emphasize customer service or leadership skills.

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The Human Factor