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Daily Progress

Basic skills more important than tech savviness, study finds

By Bryan McKenzie
Published: November 06, 2010

Mad math skills count, technological savvy is important and academic credentials help open doors, but they are for naught if you don’t show up on time or if you fight with colleagues.

A study of more than 300 Virginia employers shows bosses are more concerned with employees’ honesty, reliability and social skills than whether they have the latest training or best education. Out of 21 job skills, commonwealth businesses rated positive work ethics, communicative skills and personal ethics as the three most important aspects when reviewing job applicants. Technology skills came in at No. 8 on the list, mathematics at 18 and data management and computer knowledge finished 19 and 20, respectively. Employment-related financial literacy finished out the bottom.

“It was surprising to see computer and technical skills not rated as high as the general skills of being able to work with others and being reliable,” said study co-author Meredith Gunter, who serves as outreach director for the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. “Employers were resoundingly unanimous about needing those basic skills.”  The study, conducted by Gunter and Achsah Carrier, is an update of a 1997 survey conducted by a crew that included Carrier. That study had strikingly similar results.  “Nothing has changed, really. Employers still want those basic skills,” Gunter said. “They want employees who will show up ready to work, focus and solve problems. These are pretty basic skills and, without them, all the technical skills and education you have may not do much good.” 

The study also broke down the skills for which employers look by the level of education required for the job, but the results were not far off the overall picture, Gunter noted.  Employers expect four-year college graduates to have good verbal skills, work well with others and be professional, reliable and honest. The same skill set was expected from community college graduates and high school students.  One concern addressed in the study is where applicants — especially high school and college graduates — should learn basic work skills such as showing up on time and finishing the job they’ve started. Most employers believe that should be taught throughout grade school and high school.  “Timeliness, appropriate dress, manners, integrity and interpersonal respect can be nurtured in an orderly school environment that demands the best from everyone,” the study states. “Allowing students to dress inappropriately, miss multiple days of school, or behave rudely to others does a disservice to the school environment, to their fellow students, to the employers and citizens of Virginia, and to the future of the students themselves.” 

In the business world, being able to handle a variety of tasks — and the willingness to do so — is equally important, employers said.  “I would say dependability is definitely up there, but so is flexibility and the willingness to work,” said Jessica Newville, manager of the Charlottesville branch of Adams & Garth, a placement firm that specializes in providing temporary employees and finding qualified candidates for permanent positions.  “With more and more companies downsizing and taking three jobs and putting them into one, flexibility is important,” Newville said. “The front desk position is no longer just answering phones. It’s now four different positions in one and if you don’t know how to operate a computer or multi-task, you’re going to be out of luck.”  The ability to cooperate with fellow employees is a major requirement in the workplace, Newville said.  “If you’re unable to get along with someone in an office, if you can’t be accountable for your own actions and own your mistakes, you’re in trouble,” she said. 

While employers want certain basic skills, Newville said applicants should find ways to make themselves stand out to get in the door.  “Having a four-year college degree nowadays is the equivalent of a high school diploma four years ago,” Newville said. “Having versatility and being willing to work beyond an 8-to-5 or 9-to-5 day also makes a difference. So does confidence and adaptability.”  At Albemarle County’s Crutchfield Corp., a consumer electronics retailer, human resources personnel look for applicants with personal skills that meet the company’s four business precepts of exceeding customer expectations, respecting co-workers, respecting the company’s vendors, having a passion to improve and a passion to innovate.  “We live and die by those precepts,” said Chris Lilly, human resources director at Crutchfield. “We’re looking for people who fit into our corporate culture who have adaptability and can stay within those beliefs when dealing with occasionally stressful situations.” 

Technical skills can be taught at the department level, Lilly said. “Most of the requirements I have for technical skills are already met by most applicants,” he said. For those who have been laid off, Newville recommends highlighting the important skills through the lens of prior experience. “They ought to leverage their work experiences as reasons why they should be considered for a job and show how they’ve been productive and valuable members of a workplace,” she said. “They also need to be sure that their materials, including cover letters and resumes, are up-to-date. You can’t overstate the need for accuracy and clarity in those materials.”