Several of my recent blogs have discussed the type of skills that are likely to be required for the jobs of the future. But what about the jobs of today? What skills are employees looking for in today’s candidates? And more tactically, which words do they use to describe these skills and which words should candidates use in their cover letters, resumes and interviews?
Dr. Philip Gardner, Director of Michigan State University’s Collegiate Employment Research Center (CERI) addressed just such issues in a February 2010 report, Under the Economic Turmoil a Skills Gap Simmers. This blog takes a three-layer view of the skills employers look for in new graduates, the relative importance of these skills and the ways in which employer requirements have changed over the last five years.
Changing Skills Requirements
The CERI analysis began with a quantitative analysis of Iowa State University’s career management center’s archive of nearly 21,000 job postings filed by employers from 2003 through 2009. After discussions with employers, CERI identified eleven particularly important skill or competency clusters. It, as shown in Table 1, identified key words associated with each skill and competency and performed a search for usage of these words over the six year sample.
Table 1: Key Words Associated with Skill Categories between 2003 and 2009
|Skill Category||Key Words|
|Global Understanding||global* + internat*|
|Plan a Project||plan*+ project*|
|Manage a Project||manage*|
The high-level conclusions: with one or two exceptions employers are looking for the same skills as before. They are, however, looking for higher levels of these skills. The results, divided broadly between employers looking for engineering graduates and those in all other fields, found “plan” and “team” to be the most frequently mentioned for all types of jobs and industries. Beyond that, those seeking engineers were also highly focused on “project” and “analysis” skills, while non-engineering postings also rated “communications” highly.
There were also wide disparities in the relative use of these words over the years. Overall, “team”, “plan” and “global” (although the latter is from a much smaller base) showed the greatest growth across categories. Employers seeking engineering graduates, in particular, focused particularly on “plan”, “project”, “analytical” and “teaming” skills, which showed up in between 45% and 56% of all position descriptions.
Different capabilities, however, have grown at vastly different rates over the six years covered by the study: The incidence of analytical and team skill mentions by engineering recruiters, for example, each increased by about 50%, while plan and project skills grew by 25-40%. The incidence of communication and customer mentions, meanwhile, remained generally unchanged while the use of “innovate” actually fell, from an already low 7% to miniscule 4%. Interestingly, those seeking non-engineers appeared to place a much greater emphasis on “innovate”, which was cited in 11% of position descriptions, up modestly from 9% in 2003.
The Relative Importance of Skills.
Although the incidence of word usage is certainly a valid metric in assessing the skills for which employers are looking, it does not, in itself, provide much of a clue as to which of these skills are most important and what type and level of skill in these areas are required. Everybody, for example, wants people with good planning and teamwork skills, but what do they mean by “good”?
CERI began to address these questions by convening a group of employers to identify which capabilities are actually represented by each of the key words used in position descriptions. This resulted in the identification of nine “central competencies and abilities.” It then launched a survey in which respondents were asked to, among other things, to rate the importance of each capability in the hiring of college graduates for entry-level positions.
The concept of “team” was divided into two sets of capabilities: “building working relationships”, which as shown in Table 2, was deemed to be the single most important requirement for an entry hire, and actually “building a successful team”, which ranked near the bottom. “Analyze” was expanded to “analyzing, evaluating and interpreting data”, which was ranked as the second most important requirement. Third place went to another capability that didn’t even show up in the key word list, but is, in the view of many academics, the primary role of a college education—the ability and the willingness to “engage in continual learning.”
Table 2: Importance of Selected Abilities in Starting Positions for New College Hires
|Ability||Average||Essential (%)||Important to
|Not at all Imp. to Somewhat Important. (%)|
|Building Working Relationships||4.11||40||57||3|
|Analyze, Eval. & Interpret Data||3.93||34||58||8|
|Engage in Continuous Learning||3.87||30||61||9|
|Oral Persuasion and Justification||3.46||20||61||19|
|Plan & Manage a Project||3.22||15||57||29|
|Create New Knowledge||3.20||12||63||25|
|Build a Successful Team||2.87||12||43||45|
Not surprising, and as suggested by the changes in the incidence of key words, building and maintaining professional relationships is considered to be much more important (by nearly 50% of respondents) in assessing a candidate in 2009 than it was five years ago. Other capabilities that have grown in relative importance include planning and managing a project, analyzing, evaluating and interpreting information, and engaging in continuous learning.
There were a number of expected, and a few unexpected differences in rankings by industry and by company size. Large companies, for example, generally considered the building of professional relationships, global understanding, oral communications, team building and creating new knowledge to be more important capabilities in entry-level candidates than do small and mid-size companies. Smaller and larger companies meanwhile placed a higher importance on mentoring capabilities than did mid-size companies. For the most part, however, such differences were relatively small. There were, meanwhile, no measurable differences among different size companies in the importance of a candidate’s ability to analyze, evaluate, and interpret information, engage in continuous learning, or plan and manage a project. All view these as critical skills.
Overall, there were also more similarities than differences in the change of importance of these capabilities among graduates in different majors. The greatest increase in importance, across all majors, was in managing and planning a project, building professional relationships, analyzing information, and engaging in continuous learning. Among the more notable differences: a big growth of importance in “creating new knowledge” for IT, Marketing/Advertising/PR, and Social Sciences/Humanities grads; and in the need for “global understanding” by Accounting and Agriculture/Natural Resources graduates.
The Quest for Stars
CERI’s overall conclusions are that while employers are generally looking for the same general capabilities as in the early 2000’s, the relative priority they place on these skills is changing. The three most important capabilities, across virtually all sample groups, were:
- Building professional relationships;
- Analyzing, evaluating and interpreting information; and
- Engaging in continuous learning.
The biggest changes from 2003 through 2009 were in the growing importance of managing and planning projects, building professional relationships, analyzing information, and engaging in continuous learning.
Just as importantly, these employers are now looking for entry employees in whom these skills are “elevated to a higher level of competency.” They want entry employees to come up to speed and contribute to the business much more quickly.
They are also looking for more “stars”—the relative handful of candidates who possess skills and abilities that will allow them to handle assignments located “several standard deviations from the mean;” rather than the type of repetitive and routine tasks that are now being outsourced and automated. This requires candidates who, in addition to possessing technical competence in their field, exercise higher-order thinking skills—those who go beyond disciplinary problem solving to analyze, synthesize, evaluate, and create information and knowledge across multiple domains.
The research suggests that success in these more demanding entry positions is predicated on a few key skills: quickly converting college learning to the workplace, writing effectively, working effectively in teams, acquiring new knowledge quickly to carry out job functions, being able to grasp the realities of the workplace and especially, demonstrating initiative.
This list is interestingly similar to the list of nine key capabilities that Robert Kelly compiled more than a decade ago in his 1998 book, How to be a Star at Work. In other words, the capabilities one needs to become a star performer have changed relatively little from the early 1990s, when Kelly conducted much of his underlying research. The big difference is that today’s employers now have little need for all of the non-star performers (those closer to the mean) that used to perform jobs that required lower-level cognitive capabilities, such as remembering and comprehending information and applying knowledge. And in the current labor market, the most desired employers won’t even look at these non-star candidates.