This article has been superseded by our new analysis of the skills that make you most employable.
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:
- Learning how to learn and personal productivity
- Persuasion and negotiation
- 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:
- 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.
Are the skills associated with high income? High income is a proxy for how in demand the skills are.
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:
|Judgment and Decision Making||Weighing the relative costs and benefits of a potential action.||0.8|
|Complex Problem Solving||Identifying complex problems, reviewing the options, and implementing solutions.||0.7|
|Active Learning||Working with new material or information to grasp its implications.||0.7|
|Reading Comprehension||Understanding written sentences and paragraphs in work-related documents.||0.7|
|Critical Thinking||Using logic and analysis to identify the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches.||0.7|
|Time Management||Managing one's own time and the time of others.||0.7|
|Systems Evaluation||Looking at many indicators of system performance and taking into account their accuracy.||0.7|
|Monitoring||Assessing how well one is doing when learning or doing something.||0.7|
|Active Listening||Listening to what other people are saying and asking questions as appropriate.||0.6|
|Writing||Communicating effectively with others in writing as indicated by the needs of the audience.||0.6|
|Systems Analysis||Determining how a system should work and how changes will affect outcomes.||0.6|
|Operations Analysis||Analyzing needs and product requirements to create a design.||0.6|
|Speaking||Talking to others to effectively convey information.||0.6|
|Science||Using scientific methods to solve problems.||0.6|
|Instructing||Teaching others how to do something.||0.6|
|Management of Personnel Resources||Motivating, developing, and directing people as they work; identifying the best people for the job.||0.6|
|Persuasion||Persuading others to approach things differently.||0.6|
|Coordination||Adjusting actions in relation to othersÕ actions.||0.6|
|Learning Strategies||Using multiple approaches when learning or teaching new things.||0.6|
|Social Perceptiveness||Being aware of othersÕ reactions and understanding why they react the way they do.||0.5|
|Mathematics||Using mathematics to solve problems.||0.5|
|Negotiation||Bringing others together and trying to reconcile differences.||0.5|
|Management of Financial Resources||Determining how money will be spent to get the work done and accounting for these expenditures.||0.5|
|Management of Material Resources||Obtaining and seeing to the appropriate use of equipment, facilities, and materials needed to do certain work.||0.4|
|Service Orientation||Actively looking for ways to help people.||0.4|
|Programming||Writing computer programs for various purposes.||0.4|
|Technology Design||Generating or adapting equipment and technology to serve user needs.||0.3|
|Quality Control Analysis||Evaluating the quality or performance of products, services, or processes.||0|
|Operation Monitoring||Watching gauges, dials, or other indicators to make sure a machine is working properly.||-0.1|
|Installation||Installing equipment, machines, wiring, or programs to meet specifications.||-0.1|
|Troubleshooting||Determining what is causing an operating error and deciding what to do about it.||-0.1|
|Equipment Selection||Determining the kind of tools and equipment needed to do a job.||-0.1|
|Operation and Control||Controlling operations of equipment or systems.||-0.2|
|Repairing||Repairing machines or systems, using the needed tools.||-0.2|
|Equipment Maintenance||Performing 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.
|Rank||Skill||Definition||Income Score||Learnability score||Overall score|
|1||Monitoring||Assessing how well one is doing when learning or doing something.||5||3.5||17.5|
|2||Persuasion||Persuading others to approach things differently.||4||4||16|
|3||Time Management||Managing oneÕs own time and the time of others.||4||4||16|
|4||Learning Strategies||Using multiple approaches when learning or teaching new things.||3||5||15|
|5||Active Listening||Listening to what other people are saying and asking questions as appropriate.||4||3.5||14|
|6||Active Learning||Working with new material or information to grasp its implications.||5||2.5||12.5|
|7||Critical Thinking||Using logic and analysis to identify the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches.||5||2.5||12.5|
|8||Systems Evaluation||Looking at many indicators of system performance and taking into account their accuracy.||5||2.5||12.5|
|9||Operations Analysis||Analyzing needs and product requirements to create a design.||3||4||12|
|10||Science||Using scientific methods to solve problems.||3||4||12|
|11||Writing||Communicating effectively with others in writing as indicated by the needs of the audience.||4||3||12|
|12||Speaking||Talking to others to effectively convey information.||4||3||12|
|13||Negotiation||Bringing others together and trying to reconcile differences.||3||3.5||10.5|
|14||Instructing||Teaching others how to do something.||3||3.5||10.5|
|15||Management of Personnel Resources||Motivating, developing, and directing people as they work; identifying the best people for the job.||3||3.5||10.5|
|16||Management of Financial Resources||Determining how money will be spent to get the work done and accounting for these expenditures.||2||5||10|
|17||Systems Analysis||Determining how a system should work and how changes will affect outcomes.||4||2.5||10|
|18||Coordination||Adjusting actions in relation to othersÕ actions.||4||2.5||10|
|19||Reading Comprehension||Understanding written sentences and paragraphs in work-related documents.||5||2||10|
|20||Quality Control Analysis||Evaluating the quality or performance of products, services, or processes.||2||4.5||9|
|21||Management of Material Resources||Obtaining and seeing to the appropriate use of equipment, facilities, and materials needed to do certain work.||2||4.5||9|
|22||Programming||Writing computer programs for various purposes.||2||4.5||9|
|23||Technology Design||Generating or adapting equipment and technology to serve user needs.||2||4||8|
|24||Service Orientation||Actively looking for ways to help people.||2||4||8|
|25||Social Perceptiveness||Being aware of othersÕ reactions and understanding why they react the way they do.||3||2.5||7.5|
|26||Complex Problem Solving||Identifying complex problems, reviewing the options, and implementing solutions.||5||1.5||7.5|
|27||Mathematics||Using mathematics to solve problems.||2||3.5||7|
|28||Judgment and Decision Making||Weighing the relative costs and benefits of a potential action.||5||1||5|
|29||Operation and Control||Controlling operations of equipment or systems.||1||4.5||4.5|
|30||Repairing||Repairing machines or systems, using the needed tools.||1||4.5||4.5|
|31||Equipment Maintenance||Performing routine maintenance and determining when and what kind of maintenance is needed.||1||4.5||4.5|
|32||Operation Monitoring||Watching gauges, dials, or other indicators to make sure a machine is working properly.||1||4.5||4.5|
|33||Installation||Installing equipment, machines, wiring, or programs to meet specifications.||1||4.5||4.5|
|34||Equipment Selection||Determining the kind of tools and equipment needed to do a job.||1||4.5||4.5|
|35||Troubleshooting||Determining what is causing an operating error and deciding what to do about it.||1||3||3|
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:
|Learning how to learn and personal productivity||Monitoring, time management, learning strategies, active learning||1|
|Persuasion and negotiation||2|
|Communication||Active listening, speaking, writing, reading comprehension||4|
|Analysis and problem solving||Systems evaluation, operations analysis, critical thinking, systems analysis, complex problem solving, judgement and decision making||5|
|Management||Instructing, management of personnel, management of financial resources, coordination, management of material resources||6|
|Manual skills||Operation and control, repairing, equipment maintenance, operation monitoring, installation, equipment selection, troubleshooting||11|
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.
- 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.
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.
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).
Develop a better way to assess learnability score than our guesses.
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.
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?).
Consider using different categories of skills. Some of those on the list don’t seem very actionable. LinkedIn’s categories might be more useful.
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.