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What Skills for the World of Work: Studies Discuss

Studies indicate that executives from around the world consider skills shortages as one of their top five pressing concerns. In fact, 80% of employers report a serious skills gap in Japan, followed by India with 67% (Manpower, 2011). Closing the skills gaps is a global challenge and there growing concern that this gap is only strengthened by the misalignment of education systems to the realities of the labor market.

Because of this, many countries are beginning to realize the importance of integrating the teaching of new skills in schools to equip students for employment opportunities, school achievement, adaptability and occupational mobility. But what specific “skills” will students today require to enter the labor market tomorrow? How do we coin the term for the “skills” we refer to? And how can we assess the true value of these skills?

In tackling these questions, UNESCO’s recent ERI-Net meeting adopted the term “transversal/non-cognitive skills” which are defined here as: 1) Critical and innovative thinking; 2) Interpersonal skills; 3) Intrapersonal skills; 4) Global citizenship; 5) Physical and psychological health.

There is, however, much debate as to the appropriate term for so called “transversal/non-cognitive skills”, with alternatives such as 21st century skills, employability skills and soft skills often used. Although there is no one universal term, the consensus remains - education should go beyond traditional chalk and talk pedagogy. Employers, policymakers and educators must begin understand what skills are really important, why integration is crucial and how these skills may be cultivated.       

It’s certainly true that education serves to enhance one’s cognitive skills including in literacy, numeracy, logic, scientific knowledge and ICT literacy. A large body of evidence also suggests that transversal/non-cognitive skills, which remain malleable beyond childhood, can be as powerful as cognitive skills, if not more powerful, in promoting individual success and social progress. 

For example, Bowles, Gintis & Osborne (2001) found that test scores explain only a small portion of the impact of schooling on earnings, while most benefits are due to other skills that cannot be captured by conventional test.

The Perry Preschool Programme provides another clear example through its early childhood intervention on disadvantaged African-American youth in the early 1960s. A total of 58 out of 123 children were randomly assigned to receive the program and follow-up surveys were conducted at the ages of 27 and 40. The programme consisted of many parts including interactive learning, conflict resolution, flexibility in choosing partners and so forth. 

The findings showed 28% of the Perry participants had been convicted of a crime by age 40, compared to 52% of those did not participate. Further, earnings of these participants were about one third higher (Belfield et al., 2005) than others. The study suggests that the substantial portion of such differences can be attributed to the acquisition of transversal/non-cognitive skills. Heckman et al (2010) have also noted that the early childhood intervention in the programme did not raise IQ, but promoted success among its participants in a variety of aspects of social and economic life.

Major shifts towards a more knowledge-based economy will require a far more flexible workforce in the future, a workforce with a wide range of transversal/non-cognitive skills. Moreover, employers often use transversal/non-cognitive assessments in their hiring decisions. According to the Conference Board (2007) cited in Aring (2012), researchers classified the importance of employability/soft skills increasing over the next five years, such as critical thinking/problem solving skills (77.8%), team work skills (74.2%) and creativity innovation (73.6%) with foreign languages and mathematics skills farther down the list.

Researchers are also exploring the role of personal characteristics, as well as looking for ways to develop characteristics in schooling and on-the-job training in the future. Research by Gijbels, Raemdonck & Vervecken (2010) shows that self-directed learning in vocational education is actually a predictor of student promotion to higher levels.

So are transversal/non-cognitive skills learnable or teachable? Durlak et al (2011) conducted a meta-analysis of 213 school-based social and emotional learning (SEL) programmes for 270,034 students in grade K-12. They concluded that transversal/non-cognitive skills can be developed through appropriate interventions and can make a difference in many valuable societal/behavioral outcomes and for student achievement.

It is understood that countries vary significantly when defining and interpreting transversal/non-cognitive skills. Levin (2011) notes that focus on transversal/non-cognitive skill areas and measures would lead to a deeper understanding of school effects and policy. It is also agreed that education systems should give more attention to ensure that learners acquire requisite transversal/non-cognitive skills so that the future generation can lead a more responsible and decent life and work in a rapidly changing world.

For more information, please contact Satoko Yano [s.yano(at)] at the Education Policy and Reform Unit.

Written by Mengning Ma [] 

Related links:

•  ERI-Net

• A New Cost-Benefit and Rate of Return Analysis for the Perry Preschool Program: A Summary