Here's the Skill Employers Seek the Most

People sitting on chair in front of people
Credit: Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

A college degree is nice and experience can be vital, but it’s often something more intangible that determines whether a job seeker gets the position. Whether it’s leadership qualities, communication or problem solving, soft skills can be the real key to success – and there’s one that’s valued more than any other.

A recent paper entitled The Growing Importance of Decision-Making on the Jobpublished by the National Bureau of Economic Research, asked employers what they look for when hiring someone and found good decision-making skills at the top of the list. And the number of companies looking for that skill is likely to continue to rise.

Automation is on the rise, especially in positions with predictable routine tasks. The jobs that are opening up require more critical thinking – putting people who have a history of good decisions in demand. In fact, the number of jobs that require good decision-making skills have jumped from a 6% share in 1960 to 34% in 2018, with roughly half of that increase coming since 2007.

“You have to think about what tech can do well and what it can’t do well,” says David Deming, author of the paper. “You can increasingly develop an automated skill to do any one thing better than a person … but people make decisions about how to get from point A to point B – or point Z.”

The good news for candidates? Employers are willing to pay a premium for those skills.

Deming says people in decision-intensive occupations (i.e. management or engineering) see significantly higher earnings growth after age 35 than those in positions that are less decision-focused, even in high-paying fields like healthcare practitioners and financial specialists

In fact, a 35-39 year old in the top 25% of decision-intense jobs, he says, earns more than twice what they did between the ages of 20-24. That’s good news for college students who major in fields that might not initially seem destined to draw big salaries – like history, English, or economics.

“What this study highlights is that sometimes it’s not about the factual information you shove in to your brain, it’s more that you’re learning how to critically analyze information and filter it,” says Deming. “A good education teaches you not only to soak in information, but also to determine what to ignore.”

The demand for strong decision-making skills certainly didn’t start recently. It has always been a prioritized talent, but it’s one that has come even more into focus as automation grows. As routine and scripted tasks are taken over by technology, such as artificial intelligence, so-called knowledge-work is more in demand.

“People operate better than machines do in environments of uncertainty and where decision making is required,” says Deming. “And I think, at the core, that’s why you’re seeing this matter more and more.”

Decision making skills, of course, come with experience, which goes hand in hand with the higher salaries. A title like project director or manager or vice president convey to potential employers that you have those characteristics they seek.

If you’re transitioning away from a job that focused on a scripted task or just getting started in the corporate world, though, there’s one key step you can take. As you build your resume, look for jobs that give you some level of autonomy, where you’re in a position to take actions without having to first clear it with a supervisor.

One company that shines at this is Disney, where park employees – called cast members – often have a lot of leeway in how they interact with guests. Employees are empowered to give guests “Magical moments,” which can mean anything from front-of-line passes to free souvenirs.

Another way to quickly gain decision-making experience, though the salary might not be what you’d hoped for? Government work.

“I often tell my students if they go into government work they’re not going to get paid a lot, but they're going to get a lot more responsibility,” says Deming. “And they’re going to learn a lot about how their field of interest works. That’s going to take a while to pay off, but sometimes it can really pay off.”

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

Chris Morris

Chris Morris is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience, more than half of which were spent with some of the Internet’s biggest sites, including CNNMoney.com, where he was Director of Content Development, and Yahoo! Finance, where he was managing editor. Today, he writes for dozens of national outlets including Digital Trends, Fortune, and CNBC.com.

Read Chris's Bio