A wide-ranging discourse on the future of labour markets finds at least one consensus: that transferable skills will prove vital for those navigating innovation, automation, and lifelong retraining. At the same time, those extra participants welcomed to higher education on the Journey to a Million will, as graduates, likely find competition amongst themselves increasing commensurately along constantly evolving vectors. Our research strongly suggests that in order to prepare the Million to succeed in this increasingly competitive job market, we need to give them a solid grounding in essential skills — those highly transferable skills that everyone needs to do almost any job.
90% of those with a degree believe that essential skills are important for employment. Indeed, graduates without the right grounding in essential skills are much more likely to find themselves out of work or education. We also find evidence that essential skills are a significant contributor to social mobility, crucial when up to a quarter of recent graduates in some disciplines find themselves in low-skilled service jobs.i In this essay, we explore how essential skills will only grow in importance on the Journey to a Million, and exactly how they can support those graduates’ life outcomes.
Essential skills make specific knowledge and technical skills fully productive. They are therefore distinct from basic skills (literacy, numeracy and digital skills) and technical skills (specific to a particular sector or role, sometimes drawing off a particular body of knowledge).
- Listening: receiving, retaining and processing of information or ideas
- Speaking: oral transmission of information or ideas
- Problem Solving: ability to find a solution to a situation or challenge
- Creativity: use of imagination and the generation of new ideas
- Staying Positive: ability to use tactics and strategies to overcome setbacks and achieve goals
- Aiming High: ability to set clear, tangible goals and devise a robust route to achieving them
- Leadership: supporting, encouraging and developing others to achieve a shared goal
- Teamwork: working cooperatively with others towards achieving a shared goal
This framework — the Skills Builder Universal Framework — was developed in collaboration with organisations including the CBI, CIPD and Gatsby Foundation as well as leading businesses, educators, and academics with two-way validation to ensure it is both relevant and comprehensive. It breaks down the eight essential skills into 16 measurable, teachable, learnable components, from Step 0 to Step 15. Individuals indicate their ability against a Likert scale for each step, which produces a “skill score” from -1 to 15 for each of the eight essential skills.
Our research finds that 77% of young people aged 18-24 in the UK believe essential skills are important for their academic performance. An even greater proportion of adults in the UK — 84% — believe that these skills should be taught in lessons in school and college. Those closest to the skills gaps in this country are even more alert to the value of essential skills. Research by the Sutton Trust found that 94% of employers, 97% of teachers, and 88% of young people saw these skills as being at least as important as academic grades to students’ future success.ii
Our analysis validates these beliefs. Those with higher skill scores earn significantly more, and have greater life satisfaction, than those with lower skill scores — even when controlling for age, demographics, social advantage, and, crucially, level of education. For otherwise similar working adults in the UK, we find a wage premium of around £4,000 associated with moving from the lower quartile skill score to the upper quartile skill score (or from an overall skill score of 8.2 to 11.3 out of 15). Even those with the highest academic attainment do not achieve their potential without an adequate grounding in essential skills.
Those from less advantaged backgrounds — whether through parental engagement, education or the type of school they attended — record having fewer opportunities to build essential skills at school. Having had fewer opportunities to build skills at school, their skill levels are lower. This is a primary driver of the disparities in skill levels observed across different demographic or socio-economic characteristics. Such individuals subsequently have less desire to build essential skills, and go into lower skilled, lower paid jobs. Those jobs provide fewer opportunities to build essential skills and they continue on a lower earnings trajectory than their peers with higher levels of essential skills. They ultimately have lower levels of life-satisfaction. We call this the skills trap.
With the Million likely to experience increased competition, the higher education sector will have to do even more to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students, and to reverse the fortunes of those at risk of falling prey to the skills trap.
The good news is that essential skills are learnable. Our research tells us that adults in the UK have higher levels of essential skills if they had opportunities to build them in education. The higher education sector can also learn from those schools that have been embedding essential skill frameworks for a number of years and seeing markedly increased progress in skill scores as a result.
Trends in the job market also promise significant opportunities. High profile organisations such as McKinsey recognise that recruiting for skills can be more effective than recruiting for experienceiii — this is in addition to supporting social mobility and outreach, which is PwC’s experience of embedding the Universal Framework. With skills set to become the lingua franca of recruitment and professional development, the higher education sector has an opportunity to effectively enrich its graduates in this career-boosting currency in a way that simply wasn’t possible when knowledge or experience were what mattered most. With proper planning, the Journey to a Million presents an opportunity for the education sector to provide an expanded cohort of young people with the essential skills they need to succeed.
Research, experience, and momentum point to one conclusion: the importance of essential skills is set to grow. The Journey to a Million means that higher education has the potential to improve the life outcomes of an unprecedented number of future graduates. But in order to realise that potential, higher education must ensure that graduates leave with all of the skills they need to succeed. Only with the right grounding in essential skills will graduates have the best chance of converting their hard-earned qualifications into fulfilling, rewarding careers.
Chief Executive Officer, Skills Builder
Tom founded the Skills Builder Partnership in 2009, whilst a secondary school teacher in Hackney. The Skills Builder Partnership brings together a global group of more than 800 partners around a common language and approach to building essential skills like teamwork, communication, and self-management. The Partnership, which includes educators, employers and impact organisations, delivered 2.3 million opportunities to build those skills in 2021-22.
The approach that Tom pioneered has now been widely adopted in the UK, and is being replicated in seven further countries – Czechia, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda, Egypt, Pakistan, and India. The Partnership won the UK Social Enterprise Award for Impact in 2017 and is a WISE Award Finalist for 2022.
Tom was the 2009 UK Entrepreneurship Teacher of the Year. He has served as a non-executive director of Teach First and has also been recognised as one of the UK’s leading social entrepreneurs by being elected an Ashoka Fellow in 2017. He holds a BA in Economics & Management from the University of Oxford.