Qualifications and Attributes Critical to Employers

Youth Employment

What are the key competencies and foundational skills for successful workers?

Two major research studies involving surveys and feedback from large numbers of employers have established that “soft skills” or “employability skills” outrank technical skills, or those skills needed for specific occupations based on industry standards, as the most important requirement for success in the workplace (Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, 1992; The Conference Board et al, 2006). Soft skills are generally defined as personal qualities, not technical in nature, that translate into good job performance. The Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) identified five competencies and three foundational skills and personal qualities needed for successful job performance.

The five competencies successful workers need to master include:

  • Managing resources: The ability to allocate time, money, materials, space, and staff.
  • Working with others: The ability to work well with other people. Teamwork skills are associated with communication skills, understanding group culture, and sensitivity to the feelings and opinions of others.
  • Information management: The ability to acquire and evaluate data, organize and maintain files, interpret and communicate ideas and messages, and use technology to process information.
  • Understanding systems: The ability to understand social, organizational, and technological systems; monitor and correct performance; and design or improve systems.
  • Utilizing technology: The ability to select equipment and tools, apply technology to specific tasks, and maintain and troubleshoot technologies.

The three foundational skills which are believed to support the above competencies are defined as:

  • Basic skills: Reading, writing, arithmetic, and computational skills are essential to effectiveness on the job. Listening and speaking skills that enable accurate interpretations of informational exchanges, and mathematics that enable workers to solve problems on the job, are highly valued and are dependent on having fundamental language and mathematics capability. The “three Rs” are building blocks to higher-level functioning on the job.
  • Thinking skills: Most studies list critical thinking, creative thinking, reasoning, and knowing how to learn new tasks as essential soft skills. “Problem-solving” is another term that expresses the ability to analyze information and arrive at logical conclusions that add value to a worker’s efforts.
  • Personal qualities: “Personal qualities” is a catch-all phrase that seems to reflect values and behaviors that are aligned with the culture of the workplace. A strong work ethic, professionalism, self-management, integrity, individual responsibility, networking skills, adaptability, and sociability are soft skills that fall under this heading (SCANS, 1992).

In 2007 the Office of Disability Employment Policy asked representatives from businesses that were recognized for their innovative and proactive efforts to recruit, hire, and promote people with disabilities to develop a list of essential skills for young workers. The skills the group identified were similar to those identified as key competencies for successful young workers in the SCANS report. They included networking, enthusiasm, professionalism, communication skills, teamwork, and problem solving (U.S. Department of Labor, 2011).

How can these skills be developed?

Soft skills can be developed through on-the-job coaching, in the classroom (through teacher facilitated exercises), by creating a simulated workplace within a classroom (U.S. Department of Labor, 2010), or through service-learning and/or volunteering.

Employers can encourage both technical and soft skill development through on-the-job coaching. This can be done through internships, apprenticeships, work-study programs, or training. Learning soft and technical skills on the job provides an authentic experience for learning, but it can be challenging for employers to identify qualified coaches and allocate the appropriate staff time to ensure there is a focus on learning and skill development (U.S. Department of Labor, 2010).

Schools can prepare youth for the workplace by teaching soft skills or creating classroom environments that mimic work environments. This can make typical high-school courses more relevant to students since almost everyone will work some day. Here are some essential workplace skills that can be taught in schools.

  • Effective oral and written communications: This includes “active” listening (i.e., listening and speaking for clarity), writing business letters and resumes, and understanding email and cell phone etiquette in the workplace.
  • Teamwork: For students who don’t learn teamwork through sports, classroom projects assigned to teams of students provide good practice.
  • Diversity training: Schools frequently provide diversity training to students, but not in the context of the workplace. This minor adjustment can prepare youth for work in diverse workforce settings.
  • Professionalism: Classroom teachers can teach nearly any course in a workplace simulation that also prepares students for the culture and nuances of a work environment and the expectations of their employers. This could include simulating how to deal with a boss, manage time, and work within a system of incentives (U.S. Department of Labor, 2010).

Service-learning and volunteering experiences can also help to foster soft skill development. Students who participate in service-learning have been found to develop increased tolerance of diversity and appreciation of other cultures, greater self-knowledge, personal efficacy, teamwork, leadership skills, compassion, selflessness, and intrinsic rewards (Joseph, Spake, Grantham, & Stone, 2008; Milne, Gabb, & Leihy, 2008).

View ReferencesReferences

The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, & Society for Human Resource Management. (2006). Are they really ready to work? Employers’ perspectives on the basic knowledge and applied skills of new entrants to the 21st century U.S. workforce. New York: Authors. Retrieved from http://www.p21.org/storage/documents/FINAL_REPORT_PDF09-29-06.pdf (PDF, 64 pages)

Joseph, M., Spake, D. F., Grantham K. D., & Stone, G. W. (2008). A critical evaluation of the service learning experience: Implications for higher education. Journal of Learning in Higher Education, 4(1), 53-58.

Milne, L., Gabb, R., & Leihy, P. (2008) Good practice in service learning. Postcompulsory Education Centre: Victoria University. Retrieved from http://tls.vu.edu.au/portal/site/research/resources/Service%20Learning%20Report%20PEC%202008.pdf (PDF, 32 pages)

Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS). (1992). Learning a living: A blueprint for high performance. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor. Retrieved from http://wdr.doleta.gov/SCANS/lal/lal.pdf (PDF, 102 pages)

U.S. Department of Labor. Office of Disability Employment. (2010). Teaching soft skills through workplace simulations in classroom settings. Retrieved from http://www.dol.gov/odep/documents/TeachingSoftSkills.pdf (PDF, 9 pages)

U.S. Department of Labor. Office of Disability Employment Policy. (2011). Soft skills: The competitive edge. Retrieved from http://www.dol.gov/odep/topics/youth/SoftSkills.htm


Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills(SCANS)
In 1990, the Secretary of Labor appointed a commission to determine the skills our young people need to succeed in the world of work. The commission's fundamental purpose was to encourage a high-performance economy characterized by high-skill, high-wage employment. Although the commission completed its work in 1992, its findings and recommendations continue to be a valuable source of information for individuals and organizations involved in education and workforce development.

Teaching the SCANS Competencies
This report compiles six articles that give education and training practitioners practical suggestions for applying SCANS in classrooms and the workplace.

Teaching Soft Skills
The Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy provides a resource focused on how schools and employment opportunities can teach soft skills, specifically for students with disabilities.

Soft Skills: The Competitive Edge
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability and Employment Policy provides information on key competencies identified by a distinguished group of U.S. businesses. This includes information on networking, enthusiasm, professionalism, communication skills, teamwork, and problem solving. 

Updated: Friday, March 07, 2014

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