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Skill Requirements for Workers to Reach Middle Class

The skills required for middle-level occupations are far from obvious. One issue is the appropriate level of generic academic skills. Another is the appropriate level of specificity in occupational skills. A third is the role of generic, nonacademic skills, such as communication, motivation, and responsibility. Some of all three types of skills are required for nearly all jobs, but the levels vary across occupations.

In the case of general academic requirements, U.S. education reformers have boldly claimed that “… all students — those attending a four-year college, those planning to earn a two-year degree or get some postsecondary training, and those seeking to enter the job market right away—need to have comparable preparation in high school” (Achieve 2005). Despite strong evidence against this proposition (Lerman 2008), this idea is taken seriously and has led to the creation of the Common Core standards at the high school level. The curriculum is in the process of implementation and is likely to crowd out occupation-based programs.

The evidence strongly suggests that occupational and nonacademic skills are far more significant from the employer perspective than are exposure to high-level academic courses. For example, data from a survey asking a representative sample of

U.S. workers what skills they use on the job (Handel 2007) indicate that only 19 % use the skills developed in Algebra I, only 9 % use the skills for Algebra II, and less than 15 % of workers ever write anything five pages or more. On the other hand, upper blue-collar and even lower blue-collar workers need to know how to read and create visuals, such as maps, diagrams, floor plans, graphs, or blueprints—skills typically learned in occupation-specific courses. Moreover, certain nonacademic skills are clearly critical. Workers report the importance of problem-solving and communication skills, teaching and training other workers, dealing with people in tense situations, supervising other workers, and working well with customers.

One useful categorization of these skills comes from the 1992 Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) report in the U.S. After researching the literature, consulting with experts, and conducting detailed interviews with workers and/or supervisors in 50 occupations, SCANS identified five groups of workplace competencies: the ability to allocate resources (time, money, facilities); interpersonal skills (such as teamwork, teaching others, leadership); the ability to acquire and use information; understanding systems; and working well with technology. The key personal qualities highlighted by SCANS and many surveys of employers include responsibility, self-esteem, sociability, self-management, and integrity and honesty. Hanover Research (2011) provides an updated analysis of lists of various twenty-first century generic skills.

In a survey of 3,200 employers that focused on four large metropolitan areas in the U.S., the responses indicated that such personal qualities as responsibility, integrity, and self-management are as important as basic skills or more so (Holzer 1997). In another large survey undertaken in the mid-1990s of 3,300 businesses (the National Employer Survey), employers ranked attitude, communication skills, previous work experience, employer recommendations, and industry-based credentials above years of schooling, grades, and test scores (Zemsky 1997). In a 2007 survey of employers in Washington state, about 60 % of employers reported difficulty in hiring (Washington State Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board 2008). They experienced less difficulty finding workers with adequate reading, writing, and math skills than with appropriate occupational, problem solving, teamwork, communication, and adaptability skills as well as positive work habits and a willingness to accept supervision. Punctuality, reliability, and avoidance of drug and alcohol abuse are also critical. In a 2002 survey of 27,000 employers in the United Kingdom, 23 % of employers reported a significant number of their staff were less than fully proficient in their jobs. Skill shortfalls were most common in communication, teamwork, other technical and practical skills, customer handling, and problem solving and least common in numeracy and literacy (Hillage et al. 2002).

Evidence confirming the importance of noncognitive/nonacademic skills has been accumulating in academic literature as well. Heckman et al. (2006) find that except in the case of college graduates, noncognitive skills (as measured by indices of locus of control and self-esteem) exert at least as high an impact—and probably a higher one—on job market outcomes than do cognitive skills (word knowledge, paragraph comprehension, arithmetic reasoning, mathematical knowledge, and coding speed as measured by the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery).

In a recent study, Lindqvist and Vestman (2011) document the differential impacts of cognitive and what they term as noncognitive skills on the earnings of Swedish men. They used special data on a representative sample of the Swedish male population matched with education, earnings, and information on cognitive and noncognitive skills obtained in the military enlistment process through interviews with psychologists. Persistence, social skills, and emotional stability were the key noncognitive skills measured and scored from the interview. Lindqvist and Vestman found that cognitive and noncognitive skills are both positively related to employment and earnings. In the low to mid ranges of skills, noncognitive skills exert a higher impact on wages than do cognitive skills.

The sociocultural approach provides some revealing examples of how skills are used in context and how nonacademic skills are often developed and used as part of a “community of practice” (Stasz 2001). Nelsen (1997) points out that workplaces not only require formal knowledge—facts, principles, theories, math, and writing skills—but also informal knowledge—embodied in heuristics, work styles, and contextualized understanding of tools and techniques (Nelsen 1997). In her revealing case study of auto repair workers, Nelsen argues that social skills of new workers are very important for learning the informal knowledge of experienced workers, such as captured in stories, advice, and guided practice. Unfortunately, according to Nelsen, the social skills learned at school are not necessarily the same as the ones most useful at work.

What about occupational skills? Often, firms, labor representatives, and government reach agreement on what is required for a qualification that will allow employers to have confidence in the capabilities of their young workers. In several countries, skill requirements for occupations develop through the operation of apprenticeship programs and other training programs. Sometimes, the occupational qualifications fit within a broad framework of national vocational qualifications running from basic to intermediate to advanced levels (for a review of national qualification frameworks in Europe, see Cedefop 2012).

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