Competencies 101: Elaborating on Needed Competencies


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Industry-specific skills are generally understood as a necessity for the workforce, but just as important, if not more-so, are strengths in personal effectiveness, communication, interdisciplinary thinking, systems thinking, quantitative skills, and computer skills. A 2013 report from Georgetown University, used O*Net occupational data to project the most desirable competencies, across the disciplines, for the future US workforce.

The report states that leadership, communication, and analysis skills are very to extremely important for 96% of all occupations, both inside and outside of STEM. Further, it reports that mathematical knowledge and quantitative skills to be very to extremely important for 70% of occupations. Communication, comprehension, and analysis skills were identified as being required for over 60% of workforce occupations (Georgetown 2013). Life skills such as flexibility and adaptability, initiative and self-direction, social and cross-culltural skills, productivity and accountability, and leadership and responsibility are also highly important skills (Partnership for 21st Century Skills). Strong communication skills are a particular asset to the sustainability workforce of the future, as interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary work becomes more prevalent. Perkins (2011) explains some of the reasoning for these skills for careers in geoscience. Though, as expanded upon in the sections below, the value of these skills extend across STEM and beyond, especially as the workforce becomes more inter- and multi-disciplinary in nature:

"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."
(Perkins, 2011).

Industry-Specific Skills

A primary concern for the workforce of the future is filling needed jobs with qualified workers. 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. This hierarchy is based on a model from the manufacturing industry and represents the "downstream" portion of energy production. It is geared at the level of technical operations rather than exploration for ores and fuels.

Personal Effectiveness (Soft Skills)

Personal effectiveness characteristics, also known as 'soft skills' are tied to a person's character. They are related to personality and the way in which we carry ourselves, and as such, they are more difficult skills to improve upon. That said, exercises in self-awareness and practice at strengthening these skills can be beneficial. The 2013 Georgetown report identifies social perceptiveness, capability to work in teams, ability to complete tasks quickly and efficiently, coordination, and monitoring as important to the workforce of the future, across the STEM disciplines and beyond.

Communication Skills

The 2013 Georgetown report cites that five of the top twelve most valuable skills for the workforce are in communication. These include active listening, speaking, reading comprehension, and writing; of these, active listening is indicated as being extremely important to all occupations. Learn more about strategies for Developing students' communication skills.

Interdisciplinary Thinking Skills

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.

In many geosciences, environmental sciences and sustainability fields, interdisciplinary 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). Read more about the benefits of interdisciplinary teaching from the Pedagogy in Action project.

Systems Thinking and Understanding Complex Systems

Systems thinking and complex systems are important approaches when considering complex problems that span the natural and human world. Societal challenges such as those related to energy supply, climate change, food resources and hazards all benefit from a systems perspective (Perkins, 2011). Read more about Teaching about Complex Systems from the On the Cutting Edge project. This module includes resources and activities that can strengthen several needed competencies in the context of sustainability, such as A Role-Playing Approach to Coupled Complex Natural and Human Systems by Jimm Myers and Greg Marfleet.

Quantitative Skills

Quantitative modeling is an increasingly common tool in many fields, from climate to economics to reservoir behavior. Upon graduation, students should be able to understand and apply appropriate mathematical, statistical, and computer programming techniques and methods necessary to solve problems. They should also be able to collect, analyze, and interpret quantitative and qualitative data and draw inferences from them. Prospective employees will also be well-equipped with knowledge of mathematics, statistics and computer simulation techniques.

Quantitative skills site guide

Computer Skills

Students should be proficient in the use of appropriate technologies – including skills such as basic computer skills (word processing, spread sheets), geospatial skills (GPS, accessing geospatial databases), and information literacy skills (search, compile, and evaluate information from scientific literature and web resources). 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.

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