What are the key competencies and foundational skills for successful workers?
Many skills are necessary for individuals to be successful workers, including academic knowledge, technical expertise, and general, cross-cutting abilities (often called employability skills, soft skills, workforce readiness skills, or career readiness skills) that are necessary for success in all employment levels and sectors.
- Applied Knowledge—thoughtful integration of academic knowledge and technical skills, put to practical use in the workplace.
- Effective Relationships—interpersonal skills and personal qualities that enable individuals to interact effectively with clients, coworkers, and supervisors.
- Workplace Skills—analytical and organizational skills and understandings that employees need to successfully perform work tasks.
Two major research studies involving surveys and feedback from large numbers of employers have established that “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.1 Despite this, a 2007 report found that many young people lack the soft skills needed to excel in the workplace.2
Soft skills are generally defined as personal qualities, not technical, that translate into good job performance such as time-management and interpersonal skills. 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 follow:
- 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 of group culture, and sensitivity to the feelings and opinions of others
- Managing information: 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
Three foundational skills are believed to support the competencies above:
- 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 skills 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 reflects 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.3
In 2007, the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) 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.4
How can these skills be developed?
Soft skills can be developed through on-the-job coaching, in the classroom, through youth-serving organizations, and through service-learning and volunteering.
Employers can encourage both technical and soft skill development through on-the-job coaching. Examples of on-the-job coaching are internships, apprenticeships, work-study programs, and training experiences where soft skills are learned through experiences. Although learning soft and technical skills on the job provides employees with an authentic learning experience, it can be challenging for employers to identify qualified coaches and allocate the appropriate staff time to ensure a focus on learning and skill development.5
Schools can prepare youth for the workplace by teaching soft skills or creating classroom environments that mimic work environments.6 These activities can make typical high school courses more relevant to students because almost everyone will work someday. 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 do not learn teamwork through sports, classroom projects assigned to teams of students provide good practice.
- Diversity training: Schools frequently offer 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 approach could include simulating how to deal with a boss, manage time, and work within a system of incentives.7
ODEP developed a curriculum for youth-serving professionals to assist them in working with in-school and out-of-school youth between the ages of 14 and 21, both with and without disabilities, in the development of employability skills. Soft Skills to Pay the Bills: Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success is a curriculum focused on teaching soft or workforce readiness skills to youth, including youth with disabilities. The basic structure of the program comprises hands-on, engaging activities that focus on six key skill areas: communication, enthusiasm and attitude, teamwork, networking, problem solving and critical thinking, and professionalism. The series also includes a soft skills video series with an accompanying discussion guide (PDF, 8 pages).
Youth Programs, Service-Learning, and Volunteering
Just like schools, service-learning projects, youth-serving organizations, and volunteering opportunities can also help foster soft skill development. For example, 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.8
Employability Skills Framework
Resources on employability skills for employers, educators, and policymakers from the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education.
Soft Skills to Pay the Bills—Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success
The Office of Disability Employment Policy developed this curriculum focused on teaching soft or workforce readiness skills to youth, including youth with disabilities. The curriculum was created for youth development professionals as an introduction to workplace interpersonal and professional skills. The curriculum targets youth ages 14 to 21 in both in-school and out-of-school environments. The basic structure of the program consists of modular, hands-on, engaging activities that focus on six key skill areas: communication, enthusiasm and attitude, teamwork, networking, problem solving and critical thinking, and professionalism.
The Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) (PDF, 48 pages)
In 1990, the Secretary of Labor appointed a commission to determine the skills that 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 (PDF, 120 pages)
This report compiles six articles that give education and training practitioners practical suggestions for applying SCANS in classrooms and the workplace.
Teaching Soft Skills (PDF, 9 pages)
The U.S. 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.
1 Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, 1992; The Conference Board Corporate, Voices for Working Families, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, & Society for Human Resource Management, 2006
2 America’s Promise Alliance, 2007
3 SCANS, 1992
4 U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, 2011
5 U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, 2010
6 U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, 2010
7 U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, 2010
8 Joseph, Spake, Grantham, & Stone, 2008; Milne, Gabb, & Leihy, 2008