The top skills that will be most desired by employers by 2020.

Formal training can be expensive.

It’s very important, therefore, to invest in the most relevant skills; so which subjects should you be spending you time and money on? According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) there are ten skills that will make you future-proof as we head in to 2020.

The WEF recently surveyed 350 executives across 9 industries in 15 of the world’s biggest economies to generate “The Future of Jobs” report ( The report’s intention was to predict how technological advancement will transform labour markets.

This was also discussed when the IAM attended the World Administrators’ Summit recently, where one of the topics being considered was the relentless march of technology; so, in a future that will increasingly feature robots, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality, it is worth knowing what employers will be looking for.

According to the WEF, the top 10 skills that will be most desired by employers by 2020 are:

10. Cognitive flexibility

Cognitive flexibility refers to our ability to disengage from one task and respond to another or think about multiple concepts at the same time. Someone who is cognitively flexible will be able to learn more quickly, and adapt and respond to new situations more effectively, which is why it’s so important in both educational settings and the workplace.

It also means being able to adapt how you communicate based on who you’re talking to. Employers want to know you don’t just say the same thing, in the same way, to everyone; they want to be confident that you will consider who you’re talking to, actively listen, and tailor communication to that person.

9. Negotiation skills

Negotiation is the technique of discussing issues and reaching a conclusion benefiting some, or all, of those involved in the discussion. It is one of the most effective ways to manage conflicts and build harmonious relationships.

There are many skills involved with negotiating and very few people are excellent in all of them.

8. Service orientation

This is the desire to actively seek ways to help and support others. How much do you assist those on your team, your managers, your staff, your customers, your suppliers and people across your industry? How well known for that are you?

Service orientation was first described by researchers Saxe and Weirtz as being related to a concern for others – it became a set of attitudes and behaviours that affects the quality of the interaction between the organisation’s staff and its customers.

7. Judgment and decision-making

As organisations collect more and more data, there will be an even greater need for workers who can analyse it and use it to make intelligent decisions.

Good judgment also involves knowing how to present a decision in a way that will influence others, even if it is a decision that is not popular. Judgement is also needed to decide when not to decide.

6. Emotional intelligence

Artificial intelligence continues to develop and is present in more and more of our systems, however AI is still well behind humans when it comes to the subtleties of emotional intelligence. 

Employers will place a stronger emphasis on hiring and advancing those who are aware of their own and others’ emotions. Emotional intelligence covers much more than this however and it is why interpersonal skills remain the sole purview of humans.

5. Coordinating with others

Another entry that falls under the social skills umbrella and it involves being able to collaborate and work with others. Collaboration is essential in almost all aspects of life and work and nearly every imaginable job in business today entails at least some joint effort by members of a team to work together collaboratively. This makes cooperation an essential skill in most sectors of the work world.

Successful collaboration requires a cooperative spirit and mutual respect. Employers typically seek employees who function effectively as part of a team and are willing to balance personal achievement with group goals.

4. People management

People management is probably the vaguest skill on this list, since it can mean many things.

In this context, people management refers to a manager’s role in training, developing and motivating employees to perform their best. This role is distinct from other managerial roles, such as administration and decision making. Many neophyte managers soon learn that people management is the most difficult and most important role of a manager.

3. Creativity

In the previous WEF list of top ten skills creativity ranked tenth; now it is one of the top three skills employers will seek. The reason for this is due to the increased speed of change, particularly technology, meaning a similar change in the possibilities for innovation and new ways of working.

Put simply, employers want creative people who can quickly see the opportunities and apply them externally to new products and services, and internally to new processes and systems.

2. Critical thinking

As automation increases, so does the need for humans who can employ logic and reasoning. Critical thinking is the ability to understand the logical connection between ideas and concepts. When you develop critical thinking skills, you learn to question everything; and you add rigour to your thinking.

In essence, critical thinking is thinking on purpose. It’s clear, rational, logical, and independent thinking. It’s about practicing mindful communication and problem-solving with freedom from bias or egocentric tendency. You can apply critical thinking to any kind of subject, problem, or situation you choose.

1. Complex problem-solving

Problem solving is the act of defining a problem; determining the cause of the problem; identifying, evaluating and selecting alternatives for a solution; and implementing that solution. The challenge is that the problems we are trying to solve are getting more complex; take virtually anything involving technology, for example.

Undoubtedly technology can make life easier, but it can also make things more complicated. Consider the average smartphone. The benefits are clear to all but the most Luddite of individuals, but how many of us understand the full functionality of this device. Indeed, most of us will still be discovering new functions when we upgrade to an even more complex version.

The WEF report shows that 36% of all jobs across all industries will require complex problem-solving abilities as a core skill by 2020.

In conclusion

Given that none of the skills listed work in isolation – for example strong cognitive flexibility will make you better at service orientation – I do believe that the ten skills break down nicely into two camps; intellectual and interpersonal.

The intellectual camp includes: cognitive flexibility; judgement & decision-making; critical thinking; creativity; and complex problem-solving. These are all skills that can be done without needing other people – they would benefit from others’ input, but you can demonstrate the skills on your own.

The interpersonal camp includes: negotiation skills; service orientation; emotional intelligence; co-ordinating with others; and people management. By definition all of these skills require other people to be present in some way.

Having studied the field of management for over 20 years I understand how important nomenclature is when talking about skills. The classic is the debate over whether good managers have leadership skills or whether good leaders have management skills. I mention this because after sorting the list into two groups I realised that the ten skills actually include two umbrella terms and eight specific skills.

I believe the five ‘intellect’ skills are all related to complex problem-solving: cognitive flexibility is needed to consider competing, and sometimes opposing, ideas; critical thinking helps you to be objective about the causes of a problem; you need creativity to generate original solutions; and you will eventually use your judgement to make a decision.

In a similar way, but not as neatly, I think the five ‘interpersonal’ skills are all part of emotional intelligence. Most definitions of emotional intelligence include having negotiating skills, demonstrating a service orientation, being a strong collaborator and knowing how to motivate and develop others.

We will publish a series of articles on these 10 core skills to help members develop their skillset during 2020. We will also look, where possible, to base our CPD events on these topics.

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