The Top Skill That Motivates Our Future Workforce

 The Top Skill That Motivates Our Future Workforce

By Anne Boysen

In a time when existing jobs are becoming automated and recruiters are struggling to find talent, understanding which skills the next crop of employees and entrepreneurs consider important will be nothing less than pivotal for businesses and for the overall economy. For a research project with the US-based non-profit organization Knowledge Works, I carried out a survey of just over 850 people between the ages of thirteen and thirty-four that sought to assess how young people prepare for their careers and which skills they believe will be most in demand in the future.

Quantifying Open-ended, Text-based Responses

Perhaps unsurprisingly, our open-ended questions yielded the most interesting answers. The free format of these questions allows the respondents to freely share their most authentic observations without being constrained by the researcher’s predetermined answer choices, which can make the survey less reliable or accurate. Using modern text-mining techniques and natural language processing, I ran word frequency, sentiment analysis and statistical correlation with other variables. Since we had slightly more female than male respondents, I weighted the male responses accordingly. We still ended up with more answers from women, indicating that they were somewhat more verbose.

The 3 Main Findings

  1. Communication is perceived as the most important skill.

The most important skill mentioned by Generations Z and Y was communication, followed by computer and people skills. This might come as a surprise to business leaders who complain that they can’t get their millennial employees to talk on the phone. 

  1. The gender differences were disappointingly conventional.

While women mentioned communication twice as often as computer skills, male respondents were slightly more likely to mention computer skills than communication. Female respondents were also more likely to mention skills that go along with communication, such as writing, while the male comparable was programming. Leadership was mentioned several times by males but never by females. Both genders mentioned people skills with equal frequency.

It is worth noticing that females were just as likely as males to include the word “technology” in their comments. But before we celebrate a shrinking gender gap, we should consider the possibility that male respondents could be more specific in their technology-related answers, something the text algorithm has difficulty distinguishing. For example, one man’s answer of “Financial analytics, algorithmic trading and quantum computing” clearly indicated a technologically advanced skillset but did not include the word “technology.” When using text mining, we should be aware of these nuances.

While the strong emphasis on communication as a desired skill is interesting, the gender differences suggest that gender bias in career choices continue with Millennials and Generation Z. The difference in frequency is not alarming, but the prioritization indicates that we still have some way to go.

  1. The influence of parents’ educational level

I ran the text analysis against the reported highest education level achieved among the participants’ legal guardians and discovered that, the lower the education level of the parents, the more often respondents mentioned the word “knowledge” or a technology-related skill, possibly indicating an urge to move up on the social mobility ladder. Only respondents whose parents have advanced degrees ranked people skills higher than computer skills. This group was also more likely to mention other soft skills, such as social skills and adaptability. At face value this might be surprising, but many nontechnical higher-ed degrees are based on human judgement, which is hard to computerize.

Approaching Automation via Hard or Soft Skills

As we are moving into an automated future, we’re seeing an emerging chasm in attitudes toward the skills that will be demanded in the future. We can think of these attitudes as “the hard skill approach” and “the soft skill approach.” For a while we have seen a strong impetus to teach students STEM skills, or skills that relate to science, technology, engineering and math. This hard skill argument is that a technological future needs people who can invent and manage technology, and that those who lack technological skills will fall behind. Those who stress soft skills tend to focus more on building complementary skills to differentiate themselves from the machines that will undoubtedly replace us in many areas. The soft skill supporters argue for nurturing the human talents that are harder for machines to replicate, such as emotive and relational skills. The text-based answers in our surveys seem to indicate that these two attitudes tend to follow gender and social or economic class. In a nutshell, while males from less educated backgrounds tend to favor the hard skill approach, females from families with advanced education tend toward favoring soft skills.

As a business leader, how can you use this insight to better prepare your future workforce? Could you implement more effective communication channels like collaboration platforms such as Slack or Flock? Could you proactively encourage the women in your organization to become more interested in computer skills and leadership? Could you provide training or apprenticeship programs to young hopefuls who might have plenty of ambition but little formal education? While our survey shed light on many other correlations, I think the answers from this open-ended section of our survey are a good starting point as we try to shed a direct light on how young employees perceive the future of work.

Anne Boysen is a Futurist, Trend Scout, and Generational Consultant. She consults for Fortune 500 companies in market forecasting, brand strategy and product development. The next generation is the focus of much of her research and analysis, opening new doors for her clients as they evaluate strategies. Anne is based in Austin and founder of After The Millennials and is an analyst at The Pearson Strategy Group.



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