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Academic Skills at Work: Two Perspectives (MDS-1193)

C. Stasz, D. Brewer


It is now commonly accepted that changes in work and the workplace are transforming the kinds of knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed for successful work performance. Evidence for new skill needs from employer surveys, for example, suggests that employers are often more concerned about soft skills or attitudes rather than technical knowledge or competencies. Empirical studies of work find that employers and workers also feel generic skills, such as problem solving, communication, and the ability to work in teams, are increasingly important for workplace success (Stasz, Ramsey, Eden, Melamid, & Kaganoff, 1996).

In recognition of changing skill demands, new frameworks for defining work skills and competencies have been developed in the U.S. as well as in other countries. The Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, for example, introduced a two-part framework: workplace competencies, such as interpersonal skills, familiarity with technology, or ability to manage resources; and foundation skills, including the basic skills of reading, writing, arithmetic, and mathematics. These efforts to define new skills often pay little attention to academic skills and do not delineate relationships among academic skills, work competencies, or soft skills. Furthermore, in the process of redefining skills, we have not yet reached consensus on terminology or definitions for the variety of skills deemed important.

The feeling that new skills are required for work has motivated some important shifts in thinking about how to best prepare young people for education and work after high school. Educators and school reformers are updating curriculum or redesigning school programs as a way to ensure that young people have opportunities to learn work-related competencies in addition to academics. Despite the interest in supporting students' development of work-related skills and attitudes, the traditional academic curriculum remains the mainstay of high school education, and many school reforms emphasize improvement in academic subjects.

The desire to raise academic performance and, at the same time, to provide opportunities for students to acquire other competencies creates substantial challenges for educators. Expanding the curriculum to better meet new skill demands raises some challenging questions: What should the high school curriculum look like? How can we teach problem solving and teamwork in English, social studies, and mathematics? To what extent can we incorporate demands for new skills without watering down the academic curriculum? Should we increase participation in service learning or work-based learning to enhance work-related skill development? Answering these questions requires understanding the complex relationships between academic and non-academic skills and work.

To begin to outline these relationships, we conducted a one-year exploratory study along three lines of inquiry. We reviewed the literature to identify empirical studies and salient issues in the discussion about academic skill needs and any empirical research that sheds light on academic skill demands. Second, we carried out a new analysis of existing data from a previous study of seven technical jobs (Stasz et al., 1996). Finally, we analyzed existing longitudinal survey data on high school students to define different types of skills and to examine their relationship to a variety of post-school outcomes. By pursuing these three lines of inquiry, we hoped to provide some information about the type and level of academic skill demand requirements in work and also to help frame future discussion and research on this topic.

This study is not intended to yield a comprehensive or generalizable set of answers. The analyses conducted here made use of existing data sets which constrain the analytic task itself and the generalizability of findings. Thus, the study examines academic skills within certain tracks of the labor market and certain student groups. Even with these constraints, we believe the analyses yield new and useful information on relationships between academic skills and work.

The base premise of our approach is that skills are most appropriately viewed as multivariate. In the popular literature, a multivariate view of skills is perhaps best encapsulated in Howard Gardner's (1993) writing about multiple intelligences. He defines seven intelligences: the linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences that are at such a premium in schools today; musical intelligence; spatial intelligence bodily-kinesthetic intelligence; and two forms of personal intelligence, one directed toward other persons, one directed toward oneself (p. xi). The notion that skills need to be viewed as multivariate is supported in all three strands of the research presented here.

Themes from the Literature

Several different literatures speak to the nature of skill needs at work, but none is completely satisfactory for understanding skill requirements. The research is also limited with respect to generating specific guidance that is useful to educators. Thus, any review of the literature on the relationship between academic skills and work is unlikely to provide definitive answers.

Overall, our review of the literature reveals much tension and underlying controversy that shapes the debate about skills, and several important themes and issues. First, the definition of academic skills is debatable. Two theoretical perspectives dominate the study of skills at work and sometimes yield conflicting results or policy recommendations. The positivist perspective conceives of skills as unitary, measurable traits of individuals and holds strong assumptions about a person's ability to transfer skills from one context to another. The situative perspective assumes that skills are larger than an individual's behavior and cognitive processes. Individuals act in social systems that partly determine skill requirements, distribution of work, and other factors. From this perspective, direct transfer of skills across settings is rare. Neither the positivist nor the situative perspectives, however, provide a complete picture of the place of skills at work.

Educators grapple with changing skill needs in various ways. The literature indicates that curriculum in academic disciplines is becoming more interdisciplinary and is placing more emphasis on the application of academic knowledge to solve real problems. Educators search for relevant applications or problem situations that will engage students and also help them understand underlying academic concepts. They see value in project-based learning activities, in providing learning experiences outside of classrooms, and in making more explicit connections between school and work. Many see value in applied or contextualized learning, but find it difficult to identify or import out-of-school examples into a school-based learning context.

In general, employers seem less concerned about academic skills. They want employees who are literate and numerate, of course, but in making hiring decisions they tend to value more highly an applicant's work-related attitudes, communication skills, and previous work experience over school-related factors (e.g., grades, degree, or certification).

Academic Skills in Technical Work

The second strand of the study examines academic skills in the context of seven, sub-baccalaureate technical jobs in four industries: traffic signal technicians in a traffic management agency; home health aides and licensed vocational nurses in a health care agency; test and equipment technicians in a microprocessor manufacturing plant; and construction and survey inspectors at a transportation agency. The case studies and analysis of these jobs followed the situative approach and assumed that skills must be viewed from the perspective of individuals in the working community. A previous study of these same jobs focused on generic skills-problem solving, communications, and teamwork-and on work-related attitudes (see Stasz et al., 1996). This new analysis emphasized application of mathematics, science, and technology in these occupations.

This analysis yielded several interesting findings:

  1. Technical work incorporates a wide variety of mathematics skill levels, ranging from basic mathematics (pre-algebra) to complex trigonometry.
  2. Mathematics, science, and disciplinary knowledge varies with work context. In some cases, work is dominated by a few disciplines or subject areas, while other work may require broad disciplinary knowledge.
  3. Technical workers may not discuss academics in the terms typically used in school, but in relation to a particular work process or technology application.
  4. In some communities of practice, it can be important to establish the precise meaning of terms related to math or science applications because individuals within a community can define important concepts in different ways.
  5. Technology-in-use may define work practice and academic skill requirements.
  6. Managers' and supervisors' understanding of academic skill requirements appear consistent with frontline workers' own estimation. This finding departs from our previous study of generic skills, where employers and workers often disagreed about capabilities related to problem solving, communication, and other soft skills.

Skills and Labor Market Performance

The third strand of the study explored relationships between academic skills, non-academic skills, and labor market performance from the positivist perspective. However, in a departure from that perspective, it adopted a multivariate view of skills in its analytic approach. This analysis utilized existing individual-level longitudinal data on the high school classes of 1982 (High School and Beyond [HSB]) and 1992 (The National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1998 [NELS:88]). In addition to standard measures of academic skills (e.g., grades, achievement test scores, and years of schooling completed), information about extracurricular activities and part-time work served as proxies for non-academic skills. For example, participation in extracurricular activities, such as sports teams or band, may provide students the opportunity to develop social and teamwork skills.

The analysis first looked at relationships among skills and found a modest positive association between academic skills and extracurricular activities. The analysis revealed a negative association between hours of part-time work in high school and academics, and, to a lesser extent, between hours of part-time work and extracurricular activities. While no causality can be inferred, the results do suggest that academic measures alone are unlikely to adequately capture the multifaceted skills individuals take to the labor market.

Simple wage regressions for those high school students who enter the labor market directly after high school suggest that academic indicators have little impact on early career (two years after high school) labor market success. Extracurricular activities are also unimportant for this group of students. Previous work experience, however, is important: Students who worked more during high school earn marginally more once they enter the labor market after high school. If this preliminary work holds up, it suggests that work-based learning experiences may be especially important for students not immediately bound for college.


This exploratory project examined relationships between academic and non-academic skills and work. Educators, employers, and policymakers are interested in academic skills for several reasons, chief among them is the concern that changes in work require different preparation in school if youth are to make a successful transition to employment. The literature review highlighted two perspectives for studying skills and identified some issues in the debate about defining and measuring skill requirements and incorporating these skills in school programs.

Two separate analyses examined skills from different perspectives, while sharing the view that skilled behavior is multivariate. The detailed case studies of seven technical jobs demonstrate how academic skill requirements are contextually bound. Academic skills are always used in some applied context-technicians use algebra for a purpose, not just for the sake of solving algebra problems.

The situated nature of academics has implications for educators. Instead of viewing academic knowledge as archetypes, it may be preferable to accept that knowledge is transformed by application in different kinds of social and cultural practices. The challenge is to design learning tasks or environments that first of all reflect the potential uses for the knowledge being taught.

Technical work may regularly utilize high-level mathematics and scientific knowledge. Academic skill needs are also connected with specific technologies utilized in various jobs. Technology education should make explicit connections to academic skills and, above all, promote an understanding of why a particular technology application works. Instruction must go beyond teaching manual skills needed for operating machines or tools.

The quantitative analysis of skills and job performance has less to say about teaching specific skills, but does suggest that work experience in high school has some payoff above academic performance. This analysis, the literature review, and the case studies of technical work all demonstrate that employers highly value work experience in making hiring decisions.

Taken together, the results from this project are intriguing but far from conclusive. To further explore the multivariate relationships among skills and to sort out the relative importance of education versus experience in rewarding labor market performance, we need much better information about types of jobs and more reliable data on non-academic skills from a larger number of individuals.

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