The Skills Your Company Must Have in 2019 and Beyond
Idea in brief:
The best way a company can find people for the in-demand skills of 2019 is looking at the people already in-house . . . if you help them develop the right foundational skills.
The roles that employers hire for are becoming more specialized and will continue to be in 2019. But what we’re seeing now isn’t just the shift from generalists to specialists predicted over half of a decade ago, based on the trends seen at that time.1
Instead, the skills required aren’t just specialized but are what might be called emerging or cutting edge. State-of-the-art technical knowledge learned just 2 years ago may soon be obsolete. That means what employers are hiring for today tells you little about the specific knowledge sets that will be in demand in 5 — or perhaps even 1 or 2 — years.
But while the accelerating pace of evolution makes industry-specific skills harder to keep up with, another set of skills is hiding in plain sight, obscured by all the attention being paid to the next, new thing. These so-called “soft skills” — the underlying cognitive mechanisms required to acquire new information and apply it — are largely the same now as they have always been.
Our tendency to overlook soft skills highlights how poorly these competencies are understood and categorized. The label “soft,” for example, suggests attributes that are somehow inferior to their “hard” skill opposites. It implies that soft skills are less challenging and less useful.
However, when you dig deeper into “soft” skills, it’s clear that they are essential. We would do better to call these skills “foundational” to better reflect how critical they are to worker development and the ability to stay apace of rapidly changing sets of knowledge.
These skills are also foundational for employers and the economy. As knowledge obsolescence accelerates, employers find it harder to fill positions requiring emerging high-demand skills. The best solution in this case is for employers to look to their existing workers, who, with well-developed foundational skills, will have a firm footing for success in new positions and to meet new demands.
The most in-demand skills of 2019 . . . and beyond
A workforce with a solid foundation won’t solve every talent shortage. There will always be more demand than supply in highly specialized fields (e.g. data analytics) until the workforce catches up.
But broadly speaking, the most useful skills this year and for the foreseeable future aren’t related directly to any of the “hot” jobs one can find in the prognostications of Bureau of Labor Statistics reports or similar outlooks. Rather the most in-demand skills of 2019 will be those that facilitate the acquisition of whatever new knowledge is needed now and in the future.
In particular, the most useful foundational skills will be:
- Critical thinking
- The ability to work well within a team
- Cognitive determination
Let’s look at each of these individually and describe what the research shows about how they are developed, and what that will mean for talent development professionals in 2019.
A student might develop critical thinking in a number of different contexts — practicing mathematical functions or conducting web research, for example. But regardless of the contextual differences, the ability to think critically is a skill that benefits from practice and challenge.2
Indeed, with the onslaught of digital information, it is more important for individuals to be able to discern facts from fiction, question the validity of source material, and respectfully navigate disagreements.
College-level coursework pushes students outside of their comfort zones, gives time for reflection, and develops and refines generalized critical thinking skills.3 These can then be applied to more specific circumstances as the need arises on the job, regardless of any surprising pivots an industry may make.
Gig workers, remote team members and virtual retreats are becoming more common, so the nature of where employees interact and how is changing. These dramatic shifts in the modern workplace make the ability to understand the practice of teamwork and its application more vital.
Developing this foundational skill is common in higher education. Class-based team projects enhance teamwork skills4, in addition to developing underlying competencies such as communication and the ability to consider multiple perspectives.
The growth of online learning formats in particular may have a benefit for today’s workplace that goes beyond the convenience and flexibility it affords students. Given the differences in how virtual teams interact relative to those that meet in person,5 students gain valuable experience participating in online courses, which is how the majority of working adults attend class.
Cognitive determination describes what happens when initiative and problem solving intersect. Initiative is heavily influenced by feelings of self-efficacy, which come about through success in similar settings.6
Higher education can nurture that self-efficacy by presenting students with challenging problems that allow them to apply knowledge they already have. Working learners are more likely to take the initiative if they feel they have good reason to be successful.7 Although they may believe this at the outset, it is only through the use of problem solving skills (and perseverance) that they can successfully overcome challenges.
When students are exposed to seemingly different types of problems, they better develop problem-solving techniques such as relational reasoning8 that can then be applied on the job. That’s another reason why a broad education across many subjects is important.
Learning formats that amplify foundational skills
Competency-based educational programs are uniquely situated to deliver these foundational skills. Indeed, the competency-based education adopted by many institutions — designed for adults in particular, using a mentorship model, and relying on project-based learning derived from real-world examples — aligns academic learning with workplace-relevant skills.
For example, Southern New Hampshire University’s (SNHU) College for America has goals (equivalent to courses) with descriptions such as “Connect with Customers” and “Represent the Brand.” We have found through multiple studies that mastery of workplace-relevant projects in a competency-based format results in enhanced assessments by managers of the foundational skills of their workers.
Competency-based programs allow students to not only demonstrate existing knowledge through projects, such as managing a budget, but also learn new skills. Students are excited when they find they are able to apply what they are learning in the classroom to the place where they spend a considerable number of their waking hours.
College for America’s particular evaluation format is also designed to promote foundational skills like self-efficacy. Projects, rather than being given letter grades, are evaluated as “mastered” (i.e. pass) or “not yet [mastered],” requiring students to persist until they have mastered a competency.
In this model, not only do students develop foundational skills, but they are more likely to retain the specific skills they are practicing. Applying skills from one setting (in this case, the classroom) to another (the workplace) strengthens memory and greatly increases the likelihood for retention and later use.9 Thus, practiced skills don’t disappear into the great cognitive void where concepts are “learned” but can’t seem to be recalled.
Of particular interest here, however, is not that a particular educational modality enhances foundational skills, but that the underlying learning mechanisms occur.10 In this scenario, it matters less whether the student is learning a new programming language that will be obsolete in 2 years or something less susceptible to change (such as anatomy). The act of enrolling in some form of directed educational challenge (i.e. college-level courses) should have the same impact. The research bears out this assertion.
A firm footing holds its value
In 2019, there will certainly be jobs requiring new knowledge, but they are getting increasingly difficult to predict more than a few years in advance. The half-life of a given domain-specific skill is decreasing.
What never decreases in value, though, is a firm footing in skills such as critical thinking, teamwork, and cognitive determination. You can reliably predict that these foundational skills will be the best way to stay current — and to advance — in the workplace.
With a shortage of well-qualified candidates for emerging roles, the best resource employers have for coping is their existing workforce. Nurture their foundational skills, and you will facilitate their success this year and well into the future.
Dr. Jerome L. Rekart is Associate Vice President of Learning Science and Workforce Insight at Southern New Hampshire University
1 Bersin, J. (2012). The End of the Job As We Know It. Forbes.
2 Halpern, D. F. (1998). Teaching Critical Thinking for Transfer Across Domains. Dispositions, Skills, Structure Training, and Metacognitive Monitoring. American Psychologist, 53(4), 449-455.
3 Huber, C. R., & Kuncel, N. R. (2016). Does College Teach Critical Thinking? A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 86(2), 431-468.
4 Britton, E., Simper, N., Leger, A., & Stephenson, J. (2017). Assessing Teamwork In Undergraduate Education: A Measurement Tool to Evaluate Individual Teamwork Skills. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 42(3), 378-397.
5 Saghafian, M., & O’Neill, D. K. (2018). A Phenomenological Study of Teamwork in Online aAnd Face-to-Face Student Teams. Higher Education, 75(1), 57-73.
6 Knowles, M.S. (1975). Self-Directed Learning. New York: Association Press.
7 Hong, Y., Liao, H., Raub, S., & Han, J. H. (2016). What It Takes to Get Proactive: An Integrative Multilevel Model of the Antecedents Of Personal Initiative. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(5), 687-701.
8 Robertson S. (2016). Problem Solving: Perspectives from Cognition and Neuroscience. New York, NY: Psychology Press.
9 Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The Power of Testing Memory: Basic Research and Implications for Educational Practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 181–210.
10 Rekart, J.L. (2013). The Cognitive Classroom: Using Brain and Cognitive Science to Optimize Student Success. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Education.
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