Harvard Study: Decision-Skilled Employees in Demand and Paid More in Rapidly Changing Workforce

August 16th, 2021

A new study shows us that our students are not prepared to be successful in a dynamic workplace that demands critical, analytical, and skilled decision-making abilities.

The data is all around us, and growing by the day.

  • A dynamic workforce and world demand critical, analytical, and skilled decision-making abilities.
  • Those with these skills will do better in work and in life.
  • Currently our education system is not equipping our students with these highly teachable skills.

As parents, teachers, community leaders, we have to ask ourselves why. Why are we not equipping our students with skills we know they need? Skills that will help them succeed, not just academically, but in a world that is changing dramatically—every day.

We need to do more. Now.

In a study just released by Harvard University, author David J. Deming documents the growing need and demand for decision-making skills in all job sectors.

In 2007, less than 20% of all jobs demanded strong decision skills. By 2018, it was 34%. Today, it is projected to be higher still and continuing to climb.

A key factor: the expansion of automation in the workforce. “The remaining job tasks are increasingly open-ended and require workers to make decisions and adapt to unforeseen circumstances,” Deming writes.

“Modern jobs increasingly require workers to adapt to unforeseen circumstances and to solve abstract, unscripted problems without employer oversight.”

In short: tomorrow’s workforce—today’s students—will need to leverage skills they have never been taught if they are to be successful.

Deming also highlighted two other key findings:

  1. Jobs requiring strong decision-making skills pay more.
  2. Employers historically looked to more senior staff to fill high-decision-making roles. The notion has been that experience enables better decisions, and in high variance, non-routine jobs, it takes longer to accumulate that experience.

“Highly paid workers are valuable not only because they know how to do, but also because they know what to do.”

That was yesterday. Today, Deming points out, companies increasingly want candidates who come in with a high degree of decision-making skill, instead of waiting until they gain it on the job.

In fact, problem-solving skills have become of the top quality employers are looking for on graduate resumes according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. In NACE’s Job Outlook 2020 Report, more than 91 percent of companies said they first look for problem-solving skills when hiring.

It is important to note that this is a shift from previous years, when companies said they were primarily seeking candidates with strong written communication skills and personal initiative.

In another of his papers, “The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market,” Deming gave us even more evidence that we should be providing Decision Education to our students.

Here, he focused on the increasing call for social skills and the ability to work in teams, showing that not only are employers seeking these abilities as well, but also paying more for them.

How does this connect to Decision Education? Increased social skills and an improved ability to work in teams are two key outcomes of Decision Education. Students are taught to manage themselves and the situation, clarify their own values, gather information, and consider multiple options. Those disciplines instill a behavior of listening, thinking, explaining, and then collaboratively deciding.

One teacher told us: “I saw a marked difference in my students’ abilities to get along and engage with each other, even on emotionally or politically charged topics.”

In the workplace, employers recognize that candidates with higher social skills work better in teams and are more productive, Deming cited. Candidates with higher cognitive, but lower social skills, tend to do more by themselves and have lower productivity rates. This correlation is seen in salary increases. Deming showed that wages for employees with high math, but low social skills, grew 5.9% between 1980 and 2012. But wages for those with high math and high social skills grew 26%.

If we go back to the NACE report, what do we think is the #2 most important skill the employers are looking for in candidates? The ability to work in teams.

Making Decision Education an integrated part of students’ learning experience will help them today and long into tomorrow.

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