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Employers’ Perceptions of Key Skills
Dench S, Perryman S, Giles L
The development of a set of Key Skills, and embedding them into the national qualification system for 16 to 18 year olds, is central to government and education policy.
Key Skills combine two main features. Firstly, they focus on a set of skills which relate to a person’s ability to operate in a workplace, alone or with others. Working with others, improving own performance, problem solving and the oral part of communication fall into this category. Secondly, a distinction has to be made between basic and Key Skills. Basic skills can be defined as the fundamental techniques of literacy and numeracy. The acquisition of basic skills does not necessarily mean a person can apply them in a practical way. It is this application which Key Skills address.
Knowledge of Key Skills
Around half the employers interviewed had heard of Key Skills. However, only two-thirds of these could name any of the Key Skills. There was some confusion over the terminology. Some employers were confused about the distinction between basic and Key Skills. Others talked about their own internal skill frame-works, defining skills which were essential to their own organisation. These usually included both generic and occupational specific skills. There was, however, considerable overlap between the generic skills mentioned, and Key Skills.
Despite the relatively low level of knowledge of Key Skills, and confusion over the terminology, employers were generally sympathetic with the overall aims of Key Skills. They welcomed an initiative which would better prepare young people for working life, and provide a set of skills which would enable them to adapt to changinglabour markets.
The need for Key Skills
Employers reported a high level of need for all six Key Skills, for young workers and for all employees. On a scale where 1 was ‘not at all important’ and 5 was ‘very important’, the average scores ranged from 3.3 to 4.7. Working in a team, learning and oral communication were rated very highly. They were most likely to be reported ‘very important’ for successful employment.
Written communication and the use of numbers were reported to be important, but they were of less wide-spread importance. These skills were more likely to be needed in certain jobs, rather than throughout an organisation. The use of numbers was, in particular, reported to be more of an occupational, rather than a generic, skill.
IT received the least emphasis. One-quarter of employers reported that IT was ‘not very important’ or ‘not at all important’ for all employees, and just over one-third reported a similar lack of importance for young workers.
People with sound Key Skills are argued to perform better, and to be essential to modern organisations. At senior levels, a wider range and depth of Key Skills is needed. Sound Key Skills help people progress, where opportunities for promotion exist. Those with good Key Skills are also in a stronger competitive position in the labour market more generally.
Satisfaction with Key Skills
Employers expressed fairly high levels of satisfaction with the Key Skills of employees. Average scores for all Key Skills, and for both young workers and all employees were above 3.0 (the ‘satisfactory’ point on the scale). It should, however, be emphasised that questions were asked about satisfaction with the skill levels of employees, rather than with skills available in the labour market more generally.
Despite the overall levels of satisfaction, some differences do emerge. Employers were slightly less satisfied with the skills of young workers. However, although recruiting from what is reported to be an unsatisfactory pool, it seems that employers were generally able to find young people who were satisfactory. Employers were developing selection criteria which identified those not just with the best Key Skills, but those exhibiting potential to develop these skills. Many were also putting considerable effort into training and developing employees in these skills. Furthermore, competence in many Key Skills increases with experience and, in some cases, maturity.
The Key Skill units in detail
A major aim of this study was to explore employers’ views on the content of the Key Skill units. Broadly each Key Skill has been broken down into a number of components, or elements, and each of these is defined at four different levels. The lower levels are straight-forward, involving being able to conduct a task and to do it accurately. The higher levels are more demanding, involving reviewing and monitoring an activity, and generally taking responsibility for driving things forward. These levels have been developed to allow progression, and aim to meet the needs of different employers and occupations. Simplified versions of each unit were constructed and discussed with employers during the in-depth interviews.
Several themes emerge which were common to all, or many of the Key Skill Units:
Other comments were specific to particular Key Skills. These included:
Omissions and additions
Employers identified several groups of skills which were important to them in a generic sense, and which they did not feel were fully recognised in the Key Skill units. There included:
The way people present themselves through an application form or CV is very important. It is not just what is said, but how the information is presented. This is often taken as an indicator of broader abilities and attitudes.
The recruitment interview remains the main form of assessment. Many employers are formalising their interviewing and trying to be more precise about the criteria used in assessing people. However, subjective assessment is still relied on to a considerable extent.
Employers are not always looking for well developed Key Skills, especially in young people, but evidence of the potential to develop them. Attitudes and personality are usually seen as the most important indicators of such potential.
Can Key Skills be developed?
Literacy, numeracy and IT were all seen as teachable, although it was recognised that some people do have stronger aptitudes than others, particularly with numbers and IT. Sound skills in communication and the application of number do require good basic literacy and numeracy skills.
Views varied about the extent to which the other three Key Skills, and oral communication, as well as a range of personal and interpersonal skills which are seen to underlie them, could be developed. Some argued that good Key Skills depend on natural ability; others that innate ability plays a role, but that a person’s early experiences, background and socialisation are most important. However, many employers do believe that Key Skills can be improved through training and development. Employees do need to be receptive to training, and different people will be capable of progressing to different extents.
Employers’ Perceptions of Key Skills, Dench S, Perryman S, Giles L. Report 349, Institute for Employment Studies, 1998.
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