With students increasingly focused on ROI and employment after graduation, and employers demanding new hires for technical jobs, colleges and universities face pressure to close the skills gap and grow the population of STEM-educated graduates. But in the rush to prepare students for highly specialized technical roles, it is easy to overlook the foundational technical skills that the vast majority of graduates need on the job—even if they don’t go on to become analysts or programmers.
The number one most in-demand job skill in 2016 wasn’t coding or data analytics, it was basic software: Microsoft Excel. Facility with Microsoft Office accounted for four of the top ten most in-demand skills in job postings last year, suggesting that the majority of students need to be familiar with these tools regardless of their future career plans. COE Forum market demand research typically focuses on competencies for specific fields. But given growing employer demand, we decided to take a closer look at this often overlooked, but essential skillset.
Demand for these skills is increasing as well.
Foundational technical skills in-demand for even unexpected industry sectors
Occupations with the greatest growth in proportion of jobs requesting foundational technical skills aren’t those known for sitting behind a desk – occupations within protective services (e.g., police and detectives, fire inspectors) increased relative demand for foundational technical skills by 97%, for example. Similarly, demand for foundational technical skills within sales and related occupations increased by nearly one-third.
Employers cannot assume applicants have developed proficiency with basic technical products
Despite being the first generation of digital natives, today’s students do not automatically have basic Microsoft Office skills. As one student noted in a 2017 education technology discussion, upon entering college “I did not know how to use headers, footers, or page numbers in Microsoft Word,” and went on to admit she was afraid to ask for help. This problem only compounds for adult learners who didn’t grow up with or in some cases even enter the workforce with these tools available.
Employers hardly take it for granted that job candidates already know Microsoft Office, even though the programs have been around for nearly three decades. If anything, employers are more likely to require Microsoft Office skills now than in the past because they’ve learned that new hires often lack these foundational skills, and because more and different types of jobs now require them.
Employers increasingly specify need for foundational technical skills in jobs that needed them all along
Even in jobs where foundational technical skills would be expected, employers increasingly need to spell out that applicants be able to use common Microsoft products. For example, these skills increased significantly in importance in “office and administrative support” occupations from 2010 to 2016; the proportion of these jobs requesting Word, Excel, or Outlook abilities increased nearly 20%. Given the age and ubiquity of these products, it’s not that these office and administrative support jobs wouldn’t have needed basic technical skills in 2010: it’s that employers have learned not all applicants will be prepared for that requirement.
Teach all students foundational technical skills to equip them for future careers
Students in all states will need foundational technical skills, with employers in New York, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia placing the greatest emphasis on foundational technical skills nationwide.
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