AAC&U News, May 2019
Facts & Figures

Foundational Skills to Succeed in Today’s Economy

Last August, AAC&U surveyed one thousand business executives and hiring managers to discern the skills they desired in the employees they hire. The skills they valued most—including oral and written communication, critical thinking/analytical reasoning, ethical judgment and decision making, and the ability to work in teams—cut across majors and disciplines and are hallmarks of high-quality liberal education programs at colleges and universities across the country.

A new report by Burning Glass Technologies and the Business-Higher Education Forum (BHEF), The New Foundational Skills of the Digital Economy: Developing the Professionals of the Future, has found that employers are seeking a broad base of cross-disciplinary skills in their employees. By scouring over 150 million unique job postings and fifty-six million resumes posted in the United States since 2007, the report found fourteen “foundational skills” organized into three categories—human skills, business enablers, and digital building blocks. No single skill is a silver bullet; rather, graduating students and prospective employees need a repertoire of skills drawn from all three areas to succeed in today’s highly digitized economy.

Foundational Skills of the Digital Economy

  • Of the fourteen skills, communication is by far the most sought after, with more than nine million total openings in 2017 seeking it—more than two and a half times the number of openings as the second skill, managing data. (See figure 1 for a breakdown of all fourteen skills).
  • The need for employees with the foundational skills is rapidly increasing. More than half of all job openings (53 percent, or twelve million jobs) included one of these skills in 2017.
  • Every skill but one (digital design) grew in demand by at least 18 percent since 2012, and demand for five skills grew by at least 40 percent. According to the report, “The skill for which demand is increasing most rapidly, Communicating Data, has a growth rate of 323” percent.

Figure 1

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Life-Long Impact

  • On average, announcements seeking employees with one or more of the foundational skills featured an advertised salary of $61,000, or “$8,000 more than the average for all jobs,” the report said.
  • Average salary gains were highest for skills in the digital building block and business enabler categories, which were from 7 percent to 38 percent above average. The largest gains were for software development and computer programming, which saw increases of 34 percent and 38 percent, respectively.
  • These skills are not only important for a college graduate’s first job—they continue to increase in value as employees advance in their careers. According to the report, job postings for senior- or management-level jobs were 49 percent more likely than other jobs to request these skills and 152 percent more likely to seek business enabler skills (see figure 2).

Figure 2

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Building and Communicating the Foundational Skills

  • Job seekers should have skills from all three areas in their repertoire. “While all three groups of skills are valuable, combining skills drawn from different groups increases their value,” the report said. “However, while those who prepare for the digital economy by building skills in all three groups will enjoy a clear advantage, fewer than one in five job seekers [19 percent] in this research claim to have done so” on their resumes.
  • More than three-quarters (78 percent) of job seekers included at least one skill on their resume, and 46 percent included skills in at least two separate skill areas.

Implications for College Students

  • The report recommends that students develop “a personal plan for using a diverse set of learning opportunities to acquire, demonstrate, and signal these skills.”
  • Students should also take advantage of curricular and cocurricular opportunities, especially experiential learning experiences like volunteering, internships, or jobs that will allow them to apply these skills in hands-on projects.
  • Finally, portfolios, resumes, and other tools can help students demonstrate and market these skills to their potential employers. This matches results from AAC&U’s 2018 employer research survey, which found that “78 percent of executives and 81 percent of hiring managers find ePortfolios useful when evaluating recent graduates, versus 51 percent of executives and 48 percent of hiring managers who find college transcripts useful.”

Implications for Higher Education

  • Like students, those working in higher education must recognize the value of these skills.
  • Institutions should integrate these skills into coursework and wider institutional goals, make them part of student advising, and collaborate with businesses and employers to “coordinate goals and expectations” for experiential learning inside and outside the classroom.
  • Finally, institutions should guide students in demonstrating these skills through capstones and signature learning experiences. AAC&U advocates for all students to complete a signature work project that “allows students to connect liberal and general learning with the world beyond college.”

Unless otherwise cited, statistics and images in this article are included by permission of Burning Glass Technologies and the Business-Higher Education Forum from their report, The New Foundational Skills of the Digital Economy: Developing the Professionals of the Future.

About AAC&U News

AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.

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