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Study reveals the key skills for workplace success

07.26.2014
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Earlier this summer a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit explored the skills required of recent university graduates, and whether they were entering the workforce with those skills or not.  The report found that there was a large skills gap between what higher education produced and what the workplace needed, particularly in softer skills such as collaboration.

Recent research by UC Santa Barbara researchers has confirmed the importance of social skills in a recent study exploring what it is that makes us successful in the workplace.

The study linked the skills children possessed between 1972 and 1992 with their subsequent professional performances in adult life.  One of the more interesting trends to emerge from the study was an increase in the market value of individuals with the magic combination of high cognitive and social skills.

“I did the study in a very similar way to the studies on math scores,” the researcher said. “Every 10 years or so, the U.S. government surveys a representative sample of high school students and has them take tests. Then they follow these people for about 10 years to know how they’re doing in the labor market when they reach their late 20s.”

These data sets were used to determine the relationship between high school status and demand in the workplace.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the research found that the marketplace is crying out for individuals with the ideal mixture of intelligence and social abilities.

Whilst the EIU study mentioned earlier looked specifically at skills such as collaboration, this analysis looked at proxies of social skills, such as participation in sports teams or some other extra curricular leadership role.  This was then compared with the kind of skills required in people’s jobs when they entered the workforce.

Some of these were management positions that required both intelligence and social interaction. Others required one or another type of skill—cognitive ability for, say, number crunching, or strong social skills for positions such as those in sales and marketing. “Using these two different measures of skills, I see exactly the same patterns,” they say. “The people who are both smart and socially adept earn more in today’s workforce than similarly endowed workers in 1980.”

Crucial to success was having the combination of skillsets.  Having one in isolation was shown to endow individuals with about as much success as they did in the past, whilst those with neither intelligence or social skills are doing worse than ever.  The paper concludes by pondering whether people are naturally endowed with strong social skills, or whether it’s something that can be trained.  If the latter is the case, what implications does this have for education policy around the world, both in schools and indeed in the workplace.

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