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Needed Competencies

Information compiled by Karin Kirk, SERC and informed by the Geoscience Workforce in the 21st Century workshop

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Competencies for today's workforce represent a blend of traditional scientific skills paired with additional strengths in interdisciplinary work, ability to collaborate and communicate, and "soft skills" that help employees be adaptable, motivated and capable in their jobs.

Within the energy and mining sectors, the primary concern is filling needed jobs with qualified workers. Thus the National Academies report largely stresses competency in one's scientific discipline, along with industry-specific training. Their report recommends that partnerships between industry and education can be used to create competency-based pathways to prepare students for technical careers. This training is presently modeled by programs in the nuclear power, electrical transmission and renewable energy sectors. Such training is well-suited for two-year colleges and can involve 1-year certificates, associate's degrees, or can take place in the first 2 years of a 4-year degree (NAS, 2013).

For example, the Center for Energy Workforce Development has developed competencies for preparing new employees for a career in the energy industry (see figure at right). This hierarchy is based on a model from the manufacturing industry, and represents the "downstream" portion of energy production and is geared at the level of technical operations rather than exploration for ores and fuels.

Elsewhere in the geosciences, environmental sciences and sustainability fields, more well-rounded competencies are in demand. In his article, Geosciences: Earth Works, Sid Perkins points out, "Many of today's senior geoscientists were trained as specialists in relatively narrow disciplines, but in future, most demand will be for researchers who have been trained to appreciate the interdisciplinary nature of the Earth sciences." Because of this, scientists are likely to need to understand multiple disciplines, and have the ability to communicate with, collaborate with, and value those coming from other perspectives (Perkins, 2011). Below is a summary of competencies and focal areas for future employees.

Soft skills
"Geoscientists who find employment in the private sector are likely to work in teams of people with diverse backgrounds, which means that a broad education and experience — as well as good interpersonal skills and the ability to communicate effectively — must-haves in the workplace."

Today's societal problems span multiple disciplines. For example, mapping coastal hazards due to sea level rise could encompass geomorphology, marine geology, land use and population dynamics, weather hazards and climate projections.

Quantitative Skills
Quantitative modeling is an increasingly common tool in many fields, from climate to economics to reservoir behavior. Prospective employees will be well-equipped with knowledge of mathematics, statistics and computer simulation techniques.

Computer Skills
Today's professionals are likely to be using GIS, digital mapping, large datasets, and other digital tools. Programming skills are also desirable, as is the ability to collaborate with programmers and computer specialists.

Complex Systems
Complex systems and systems thinking are important approaches when considering complex problems that span the natural and human world. Societal challenges such as energy, climate change, food resources and hazards all benefit from a systems perspective. (Perkins, 2011)

Read more about competencies and learning outcomes, and see example learning outcomes and competencies developed by various academic programs.

Career Training in Sustainability

Mascarelli (2013) describes approaches taken by academic institutions to prepare their students to work in the field of sustainability. Some programs reside within traditional disciplinary departments, while some are truly interdisciplinary. Another approach is that students work on research projects in multi-discipline teams. Either way, an interdisciplinary approach to research topics is common, and with that comes emphasis to train students to think more broadly. Specific competencies that are being taught in sustainability programs and/or are desired by employers include:

In his 2011 survey of sustainability professionals, Davies adds that workers in the sustainability field also need an understanding of the business world and how decisions are made on a corporate level (Davies, 2011).

Interdisciplinary projects with real-world applications can be a selling point for employers, as this demonstrates the ability to solve challenges. The challenge for educators is to train students to think broadly, yet have enough depth to build credibility and demonstrate rigor for graduate schools or employers. Employers still require depth and disciplinary expertise; yet they also are seeking competence in communication, problem-solving, and leadership (Mascarelli, 2013).


Davies, John, 2011, GreenBiz Salary Survey 2011, Published online November 14, 2011

Mascarelli, A., 2013, Sustainability: Environmental puzzle solvers, Nature 494, 507-509. doi:10.1038/nj7438-507a. Published online February 27, 2013.

Perkins, Sid, 2011, Geosciences: Earth works, Nature 473, 243-244. doi:10.1038/nj7346-243a. Published online May 11, 2011.

Center for Energy Workforce Development, Energy Industry Competency Model: Generation, Transmission and Distribution (pdf)

Emerging Workforce Trends in the U.S. Energy and Mining Industries: A Call to Action (2013), by the National Academy of Science, Board on Earth Sciences and Resources. Findings and Recommendations (pdf) of this report.

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