New study: Jobs that pay well require more than degrees

Georgetown researchers find communication and teamwork among the five most in-demand skill sets

Students today are advised to develop skills that cannot be overtaken by automation. An analysis last year by Oxford Economics, for example, predicted that 20 million manufacturing jobs across the globe could be replaced by robots by 2030.

That evolving job market is prompting more students to decide college is a surer passage to financial stability than blue collar careers. A new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce finds that, in addition to education credentials, students would do well to hone their communication skills.

The report, “Workplace Basics: The Competencies Employers Want,” ranks the cognitive competencies that yield the highest economic rewards. Communication, team work, sales and customer service, leadership, and problem solving and complex thinking are the five most in-demand competencies across the labor market, while strength and coordination are the least in demand. (The report defines communication broadly, including written and oral communication with clients and colleagues, the ability to express yourself effectively in speaking and writing and listening and reading.)

“To compete in the modern economy, workers need a mix of general competencies valued across the labor market and the specific competencies valued in their occupations,” said Megan Fasules, co-author and assistant research professor and research economist at CEW. “The right mix of education and competencies for an occupation can lead to high economic rewards.”

The report mines the Occupational Information Network (O*NET) database, which includes information on competencies for more than 1,000 occupations.

Among the findings:

The jobs in which cognitive competencies are used most intensively tend to be held by workers with higher levels of education. In fact, 77% of the workers who use communication most intensively have a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to 10% of workers who use strength and coordination abilities most intensively. While formal education is not the only way for workers to acquire competencies demanded across the labor market, postsecondary degrees may be a way for workers to provide information about their likely cognitive competencies to potential employers.

“When it comes to earnings, education matters, but so do general competencies,” said lead author and CEW Director Anthony P. Carnevale. “Workers need to focus not just on college degrees, but on the knowledge, skills, and abilities they need to reach high earnings in their occupations.”

The report cites the decline in blue-collar occupations. While 40% of Americans worked in such jobs in 1970, today those jobs represent 21% of national employment.

The report says:

In contrast, employment in professional and technical occupations, in which cognitive competencies are in high demand, increased over the same period, from 27% to 44 % of employment...Thus, as professional and technical occupations have grown to replace blue-collar occupations as the leading suppliers of American jobs, demand for cognitive competencies such as leadership, teaching and learning, and problem solving and complex thinking has risen. Meanwhile, demand for physical competencies like mechanical skills, fine-motor abilities, and vision and hearing has fallen.

The report contends that while automation can replace physical and low-level cognitive skills, flexibility, judgment, and common sense and tasks entailing adaptability are more difficult for machines to assume. The report estimates somewhere between 9% and 47% of U.S jobs are at risk of some degree of automation.

We estimate that on average, 28% of tasks within all occupations are at risk of automation. While it is unlikely that entire occupations will completely disappear in the near future, it is probable that job tasks will change and new kinds of jobs will emerge. While we can't know exactly which competencies will be demanded years from now, historical trends suggest that general competencies that are transferable across all occupations are a good bet for workers, especially in these unknown and uncertain times. Moreover, research on new and emerging occupations suggests that, while overall demand for analytical skills has remained fairly steady for several decades, these types of skills are in high demand in new and emerging jobs.

The report includes a somber note about how COVID-19 has impacted the job market, decimating jobs in services and support occupations.

In contrast, workers in professional and technical occupations—who have the highest need for cognitive competencies in their jobs—have been more protected from the initial waves of COVID-related unemployment. The number of workers in professional and technical occupations decreased by only 6 percent between February 2020 and April 2020, and the unemployment rate for workers in these occupations increased from 2 percent to 7 percent, far lower than the unemployment rate for the entire labor force. In part, this is because the roles of workers in professional and technical occupations are better suited to working from home. If widespread telework continues, it is reasonable to expect that the relative demand for the cognitive competencies associated with these jobs will continue to rise. Moreover, as workers adjust to new working conditions requiring greater physical distance, competencies like communication are likely to become even more important.