The confusion that reigns about what ‘skills’ are, is rooted in different academic disciplines. In particular, in the heart of social sciences exist three schools of thought that one need to consider when discoursing around skills and their relation to the world of work: economics, psychology and sociology. In the Skills Panorama we have chosen not to limit to the one or the other approach, but take into account all of them offering thus, a Panoramic and rich approach to skills in the EU!
For economists skills are a means of achieving better returns in the labour market. In other words, acquiring skills is simply an investment in one’s self. The incentives for individuals, organisations and societies in acquiring skills are summarised by the Human Capital Theory [i]. Within this theory, knowledge and skills of workers are part of the capital stock and can be increased through systematic investment. Thus, education as well as other forms of training are considered to be investment rather than consumption expenditure. For example, individuals are investing in themselves to boost their productivity, and thus increase their life time earnings, achieve higher employment rates, and reach access to better working conditions in general. Such investment can also be used by governments, which seek to enhance economic growth, through increasing the level of education and training of their workforce. However, a drawback of economic theory is that important social and cultural dimensions which are central to productivity and performance, such as those underlying motivation and trust relations, are not taken into account.
Economists often measure skills supply using the levels and fields of education of the population, and skills demand by the employment needs for specific occupations and jobs. The Skills Panorama offers a wide range of skills indicators regarding both the demand for and supply of skills across sectors of economic activity and countries. Typically, such indicators come from sources such as the European Union Labour Force Survey and the Cedefop Skill Forecasts.
Within psychology the concept of skills, in relation to work, refers to the qualities workers possess and the capabilities required for accomplishing certain tasks. Often, these are also referred to as competences. Skills are divided into cognitive skills, such as literacy and numeracy, and non-cognitive skills, such as teamwork and various behavioural traits. The field of occupational and educational psychology have devoted enormous efforts and elaborated advanced techniques [ii] for measuring such skills or capabilities, mainly by administering direct testing and questionnaires to employees. Such techniques aim at the objective measurements of the skills or assessing requirements needed for different types of jobs. The Skills Panorama offers a wide range of skills indicators capturing both the importance of selected skills within different occupations measured as the intensity these are utilised across groups of occupations and countries. Such data on skills come from datasets such as the European Skills and Jobs Survey.
Sociologists are mainly concerned with two issues: the socio-economic context and the social construction of skills. The first focuses on the changes that are taking place in the complexity of the work tasks and in the discretion that employers exercise over their workforce. Skills are considered in this context, to describe the ability of workers to respond to the ever-increasing complexity of tasks. Harry Braverman [iii], in 1974, wrote an influential account on the degradation of work in the twentieth century that has been subject to extensive academic debate on the importance of skills. However, translating the ability to respond to work complexity into individual skills is rather challenging. Perhaps a case in point is the (sociological significance) of the so-called emotional intelligence as means of attuning workers to the dynamics to the ever-changing workplace. Similar skills could refer to self-control, the ability to work unsupervised, and even the aesthetics at work. It is even more difficult to measure such skills. At the moment mostly loose proxies from expert-assessment exercises tend to be used. The second main concern among sociologists refers to the social construction of skills. According to this, a wedge may be caused between skills and their value due to various social processess, for example when skills are employed by groups, such as trade unions, to further their interests, i.e. the status, wealth and power of workers. In other words, skills are seen as a means of increasing workers’ bargaining power. Nevertheless, for this second issue there has been no attempt to provide a measure. The Skills Panorama, given the difficulties in providing hard measures of skills within the framework of sociological theory, aims to capture these aspects via qualitative sources of information and analysis.
This blog entry has unravelled the links between disciplines, theories, and constructs of skills only in relation to the labour market and work. Even so, skills are approached differently even within disciplines depending on the dimension under investigation.
The Skills Panorama has adopted a multifaceted approach to skills trying to capture and gather various covering all these aspects by offering rich quantitative and qualitative content.
Therefore, if you find yourself in a position asking yourself “Is the Panorama meeting my information needs on skills?” be prepared to first answer the question “What do I mean by skills?”
[i] Becker, G S (1964) Human Capital, New York: National Bureau of Economic Research
[ii] Gael, S. (1988) The Job Analysis Handbook for Business, Industry, and Government, Wiley
[iii] Braverman H. (1974) Labor and Monopoly Capital: The degradation of work in the Twentieth Century, 25th anniversary edition. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974/1998