Matching Skills, Credentials, and Jobs

by Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scientist, Educational Policy Institute

I’ve long made the connection between the relatively lack of connection between a college degree and the workforce in terms of skill sets. Sure, many of the skills developed in college are hugely beneficial in the private and public sectors. No argument. But for them to have impact, one must have an understanding of how the institution curates these skills in students. Institutions, by and large, are best at knowledge if compared with competence. If a student completes a degree program, there is some expectation that they have acquired some level of proficient knowledge as a core in their degree. There is less information on what level of skill they have developed during this time. This is a major difference, in large part, between two- and four-year institutions. Four year institutions, especially at the certificate level, focus on the acquisition of knowledge and the corresponding skill that goes with that knowledge. Think computer-numeric control or and IT certification. If someone has a certificate in C++ programming, I am confident that they can code in C++. Same can be said for a dental hygienist or an RN.

Universities have many programs that are very certification-like. This is mostly in the medical arts arena, but I’m sure it can be argued across the curriculum, to a degree. However, in those areas that lead to open (non-professional) jobs in the workforce, how can anyone be guaranteed whether the university has transferred these skills to its students?

There are many reports available that focus on what businesses say they want in their employees. I conducted a quick web search and found a number of them. What I found was that most of these surveys found similar findings, albeit not identical. What I mean is this: the same types of skills come up in different reports and surveys, but the order of their relative importance shifts greatly. To me, this illustrates that different people value different skills in priority order.

Five Surveys on Employee Skill Sets


The list above gives you an idea of the main attributes that business heads and others say they relish in an employee. Some of these studies are more sophisticated than others. In fact, I was not able to discern exactly what some of these did to create these “lists.” So, keep that in mind with regard to the empirical nature of this reporting.

The reader should notice the similarity between the five sources. In my loose analysis of these (below), I found that communications is easily the top item. Communication is typically described as having the ability to get your point across in a convincing manner; being able to express your point in a clear and convincing manner; and being able to relate to your workers and clients when doing so.

EPI Summary of Skill Set Surveys 

1 Communication
2 Teamwork
3 Leadership
4 Analytical and Research
5 Organizational
6 Problem Solving/Critical Thinking
7 Computer
8 flexibility and adaptation
9 Friendly/Interpersonal
10 Technical skills

Second on the list is teamwork: the ability to work together in order to push projects and assignments down the line. Third is leadership, a term we use to describe those who can guide the teams toward the goal posts. Leadership surely involves having insight and ability to recognize trends while also serving as a focal point for the company. Analysis is an important skill: being able to read and write and comprehend and make sense of complicated data and reporting. Organization refers to being able to coordinate multiple activities and get things done, especially in a fast-paced environment. Having the critical thinking and problem-solving capacity is a major request from business and industry. The Top 10 list from these efforts also include computer savvy, flexibility, interpersonal skills, and technical skills. There are many other items that are not in this Top 10 list that are critically important, including confidence, creativity, initiative, punctuality, self-motivation, and work ethic.

These are all important and ranking them is difficult and perhaps not particularly useful. Ultimately, we want to know the most important skill set to an employee so we can match it with the proper “higher” education. In reality, we want employees to come with a tool kit filled with a myriad of skills. Let’s face it, one doesn’t just need a hammer. We need a hammer with nails, just like we need a saw with the wood, and so on. We need skills to work in combination to bring about the type of effort and end point that is useful to our companies. And surely, for life in general.

Still, we are left with wondering if most institutions cultivate these skills in students. A “good” university education should do so, but encouraging a lot of reading, writing, and comprehension; by demanding teamwork and presentation skills; by working on complex problems; and forcing students to be ultra organized. But there is no guarantee that they will, in fact, gain these skills. Arguably, there is nothing to say that many students do not possess many of these attributes at the end of high school. I posit that many high school students emanating from outstanding high schools have more proficiency in these hard and soft skills than other college graduates from institutions that do a poor job of embedding this level of learning in their curriculum. And this is a problem.

To be sure, every graduate of a postsecondary institutions should possess most of these skills. They all should be strengthened in the workforce, but there needs to be a foundation to build upon. We need to make sure that institutions are doing a better job of transferring these skill sets to students. Otherwise, we just create knowledge. And knowledge by itself isn’t very useful.

For other topics that touch on this issue, read these Swail Letters:



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.