Which skills make you most employable?

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Summary

We correlated 35 key transferable skills with salaries, then rated them on how easy they are to learn, and combined them into 11 categories.

Based on this analysis, the five skills to learn that will most boost your employability are:

  1. Learning how to learn and personal productivity
  2. Persuasion and negotiation
  3. Science
  4. Communication
  5. Analysis and problem solving

This analysis is still preliminary, so we wouldn’t put too much weight on it.

Which skills are transferable and have good earnings prospects?

There’s lots of skills you could learn. How can we narrow them down to the most useful ones?

Here’s two criteria:

  1. Are the skills transferable? Transferable skills are more valuable because they better keep your options open, and they’re less vulnerable to sudden changes in the job market. Whereas if you’re an expert at making a certain type of widget, you better hope demand for that widget stays high.

  2. Are the skills associated with high income? High income is a proxy for how in demand the skills are.

Laurence Shatkin, who runs the blog Career Laboratory, did an analysis based on these two factors. We’ll summarise what he learned, then propose some extensions.

Shatkin used the O*NET’s database, which has data on the salaries of hundreds of jobs in the US, as well as which skills are most important in them. He took O*NET’s list of 35 transferable skills, then then correlated the importance of these skills in each job with the average income of that job. A high correlation shows that high earning jobs tend to require these skills, suggesting these skills have high market value.

Here’s the results:

SkillDefinitionCorrelation
Judgment and Decision MakingWeighing the relative costs and benefits of a potential action.0.8
Complex Problem SolvingIdentifying complex problems, reviewing the options, and implementing solutions.0.7
Active LearningWorking with new material or information to grasp its implications.0.7
Reading ComprehensionUnderstanding written sentences and paragraphs in work-related documents.0.7
Critical ThinkingUsing logic and analysis to identify the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches.0.7
Time ManagementManaging one's own time and the time of others.0.7
Systems EvaluationLooking at many indicators of system performance and taking into account their accuracy.0.7
MonitoringAssessing how well one is doing when learning or doing something.0.7
Active ListeningListening to what other people are saying and asking questions as appropriate.0.6
WritingCommunicating effectively with others in writing as indicated by the needs of the audience.0.6
Systems AnalysisDetermining how a system should work and how changes will affect outcomes.0.6
Operations AnalysisAnalyzing needs and product requirements to create a design.0.6
SpeakingTalking to others to effectively convey information.0.6
ScienceUsing scientific methods to solve problems.0.6
InstructingTeaching others how to do something.0.6
Management of Personnel ResourcesMotivating, developing, and directing people as they work; identifying the best people for the job.0.6
PersuasionPersuading others to approach things differently.0.6
CoordinationAdjusting actions in relation to othersÕ actions.0.6
Learning StrategiesUsing multiple approaches when learning or teaching new things.0.6
Social PerceptivenessBeing aware of othersÕ reactions and understanding why they react the way they do.0.5
MathematicsUsing mathematics to solve problems.0.5
NegotiationBringing others together and trying to reconcile differences.0.5
Management of Financial ResourcesDetermining how money will be spent to get the work done and accounting for these expenditures.0.5
Management of Material ResourcesObtaining and seeing to the appropriate use of equipment, facilities, and materials needed to do certain work.0.4
Service OrientationActively looking for ways to help people.0.4
ProgrammingWriting computer programs for various purposes.0.4
Technology DesignGenerating or adapting equipment and technology to serve user needs.0.3
Quality Control AnalysisEvaluating the quality or performance of products, services, or processes.0
Operation MonitoringWatching gauges, dials, or other indicators to make sure a machine is working properly.-0.1
InstallationInstalling equipment, machines, wiring, or programs to meet specifications.-0.1
TroubleshootingDetermining what is causing an operating error and deciding what to do about it.-0.1
Equipment SelectionDetermining the kind of tools and equipment needed to do a job.-0.1
Operation and ControlControlling operations of equipment or systems.-0.2
RepairingRepairing machines or systems, using the needed tools.-0.2
Equipment MaintenancePerforming routine maintenance and determining when and what kind of maintenance is needed.-0.2

Adjusting for how easy each skill is to learn

Some of the skills are much easier to learn than others. It’s notable the top ranked skill is “judgement and decision making”. That seems a bit like code for “being smart”. It’s not obvious you can easily improve your “judgement” in general (though of course you can improve your judgement within a specific domain, and there are some evidence-backed ways to improve your decision making, like this one).

If two skills do the same to boost your income, but one is much easier to learn than the other, it makes sense to learn the quick to learn one first.

So, two of us rated each skill from one to five on how easy it is to learn, where one means the skill is innate or takes a very long time to improve, and five means the skill could be significantly improved in about a year. These were just guesses, but they let us make some headway. We then converted the correlation scale into a score from 1 to 5 (assigning the bottom quintile a score of “1” etc.), and multiplied them together.

RankSkillDefinitionIncome ScoreLearnability scoreOverall score
1MonitoringAssessing how well one is doing when learning or doing something.53.517.5
2PersuasionPersuading others to approach things differently.4416
3Time ManagementManaging oneÕs own time and the time of others.4416
4Learning StrategiesUsing multiple approaches when learning or teaching new things.3515
5Active ListeningListening to what other people are saying and asking questions as appropriate.43.514
6Active LearningWorking with new material or information to grasp its implications.52.512.5
7Critical ThinkingUsing logic and analysis to identify the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches.52.512.5
8Systems EvaluationLooking at many indicators of system performance and taking into account their accuracy.52.512.5
9Operations AnalysisAnalyzing needs and product requirements to create a design.3412
10ScienceUsing scientific methods to solve problems.3412
11WritingCommunicating effectively with others in writing as indicated by the needs of the audience.4312
12SpeakingTalking to others to effectively convey information.4312
13NegotiationBringing others together and trying to reconcile differences.33.510.5
14InstructingTeaching others how to do something.33.510.5
15Management of Personnel ResourcesMotivating, developing, and directing people as they work; identifying the best people for the job.33.510.5
16Management of Financial ResourcesDetermining how money will be spent to get the work done and accounting for these expenditures.2510
17Systems AnalysisDetermining how a system should work and how changes will affect outcomes.42.510
18CoordinationAdjusting actions in relation to othersÕ actions.42.510
19Reading ComprehensionUnderstanding written sentences and paragraphs in work-related documents.5210
20Quality Control AnalysisEvaluating the quality or performance of products, services, or processes.24.59
21Management of Material ResourcesObtaining and seeing to the appropriate use of equipment, facilities, and materials needed to do certain work.24.59
22ProgrammingWriting computer programs for various purposes.24.59
23Technology DesignGenerating or adapting equipment and technology to serve user needs.248
24Service OrientationActively looking for ways to help people.248
25Social PerceptivenessBeing aware of othersÕ reactions and understanding why they react the way they do.32.57.5
26Complex Problem SolvingIdentifying complex problems, reviewing the options, and implementing solutions.51.57.5
27MathematicsUsing mathematics to solve problems.23.57
28Judgment and Decision MakingWeighing the relative costs and benefits of a potential action.515
29Operation and ControlControlling operations of equipment or systems.14.54.5
30RepairingRepairing machines or systems, using the needed tools.14.54.5
31Equipment MaintenancePerforming routine maintenance and determining when and what kind of maintenance is needed.14.54.5
32Operation MonitoringWatching gauges, dials, or other indicators to make sure a machine is working properly.14.54.5
33InstallationInstalling equipment, machines, wiring, or programs to meet specifications.14.54.5
34Equipment SelectionDetermining the kind of tools and equipment needed to do a job.14.54.5
35TroubleshootingDetermining what is causing an operating error and deciding what to do about it.133

The best types of skills to learn

We combined the skills into some more intuitive categories, then ranked them based on the average of all the skills in the category. These are the results:

CategoryComponentsRank
Learning how to learn and personal productivityMonitoring, time management, learning strategies, active learning1
Persuasion and negotiation2
Science3
CommunicationActive listening, speaking, writing, reading comprehension4
Analysis and problem solvingSystems evaluation, operations analysis, critical thinking, systems analysis, complex problem solving, judgement and decision making5
ManagementInstructing, management of personnel, management of financial resources, coordination, management of material resources6
Programming7
Technology design8
Service orientation9
Mathematics10
Manual skillsOperation and control, repairing, equipment maintenance, operation monitoring, installation, equipment selection, troubleshooting11

The low ranking of management, technology design, mathematics and programming were surprising. The main driver was the weaker correlation of these skills with income. The low ranking of programming was especially surprising, because we’ve seen plenty of cases of someone learning to program and boosting their income considerably within a year. Due to this, we’re cautious about putting too much weight on these results.

One explanation could be that skills like programming are mostly used in middle income jobs, whereas the highest income jobs are more about decision making and leadership. This reduces the correlation between programming skills and salaries, though it could still be true that learning programming will boost most people’s incomes significantly.

Also note that all the skills except manual skills are positively correlated with income, suggesting they’re all useful to learn to some extent.

Further work

  1. You could extend the analysis to take account of the outlook of different skills. For instance, you could also correlate the growth rate of different jobs with how important the skill is within the job, using the 10 year growth rates provided by O*NET. You could use the paper we cite here to create a “chances of automation” score (though at first glance, none of the top ranked skills seems especially automatable). There’s also interesting data on LinkedIn about which skills are most useful for getting jobs right now. This analysis pushes in favor of learning programming and data analysis.

  2. Develop a “transferability” index. Rather than starting from a list of 35 transferable skills, you could work out which skills are most transferable by seeing which skills are most common in the O*NET data. You could also try to use LinkedIn’s data to see which skills give you the most options.

  3. You could repeat the analysis for social sector jobs or our recommended careers list (at first glance, all the skills identified above seem useful in our recommended careers and causes).

  4. Develop a better way to assess learnability score than our guesses.

  5. Repeat the analysis for non-transferable skills too. Although transferable skills are more useful all else equal, there’s probably non-transferable skills that still are sufficiently valuable to be worth learning.

  6. Think about how to assess which skills are most useful for social impact, rather than income. Our guess is that the skills that most boost your income and employment prospects are probably closely related to the skills that would be most useful in bringing about social change, but there could be differences e.g. communication and persuasion skills seem especially important in social change; while data analysis seems especially good for high income. One way to do this analysis would be to see which skills are most in-demand in the social sector. (Related – which skills are most useful for making your personal life go well as well as your career?).

  7. Consider using different categories of skills. Some of those on the list don’t seem very actionable. LinkedIn’s categories might be more useful.

  8. Think about whether there’s a better way to measure the earnings potential of different skills than this correlation. Ideally, you could try to measure the causal influence of learning different skills on income e.g. by looking for changes in income after learning a skill.

If anyone would like to carry out this analysis, we’d be interested in publishing it. (Also see Howie’s comments below about the method.)

To learn more about how to become more employable, read this summary of all our advice.