Soft skills key to securing good living without degree


The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation asked the think tank I lead, Michigan Future, Inc., to identify the pathway workers without four-year degrees take to get good-paying jobs in the two regions they work in: Detroit and Buffalo. ROI Insight did the research. In both regions, it conducted focus groups as well as internet and phone surveys of individuals with an income of at least $40,000 who do not have a four-year degree. Reports on the focus group and household survey results can be found at

Although the research was done in the Buffalo and Detroit regions, we believe it is almost certain the findings are applicable to West Michigan and across the state.

The core finding is the predominant path to good-paying jobs for those without a four-year degree is what we described as rock climbing. As opposed to climbing a career ladder, where there are known linear steps upward.

The common belief that the way those without a four-year degree get good-paying work over a 40-year career is by learning a professional trade in high school or soon after turns out to be true for a minority of those in good-paying jobs without a four-year degree. The occupations that enable one to earn a good living are far broader than commonly assumed.

The more pervasive path is far more ad hoc, than linear. And far less planned out or predictable based on one’s first job. It is largely folks who develop a set of nonoccupation-specific skills that allow them to become valued employees that enables them to get promotions and/or the interest and ability to learn new skills that enable them to move into more lucrative occupations — sometimes with their current employer, sometimes with a new employer, sometimes by going out on their own.

There clearly are a set of good-paying occupations that do not require a four-year degree where occupation-specific skills are essential. Largely concentrated in blue-collar occupations and STEM occupations. About 27 percent of survey respondents were in blue-collar occupations and 11 percent in STEM-related occupations.

For those in other fields who make a good living without a four-year degree, the skills that matter most almost certainly are not occupation specific. What emerged from the focus group participants and survey respondents is a description of those skills, clustered in three areas:

  • Rock climbing: The ability to spot opportunities, take advantage of those opportunities and then repeat the process. Skills like ambition and self-initiative; perseverance; adaptability and preparation; curiosity and job satisfaction; confidence and humility.
  • People skills: People who are good with others do well — working in teams, working with management, etc.
  • Just plain old work ethic: Not just showing up on time but also going the extra mile to do what needs to be done, taking initiative, etc.

Paul King, president of ROI Insight, summarizes the findings on skills and training of both the quantitative and qualitative research this way:

  • The pathway to success is analogous to rock climbing: an ad-hoc, nonlinear track that includes lateral moves. This survey reveals a variety of rock (career) climber types, based on their experiences, education and motivation.
  • Being adaptable, resourceful, curious, patient, persistent and kind are qualities found in most individuals interviewed. They see these traits as necessary for advancing in their careers and believe there is a need to teach younger individuals coming into the workforce these traits.
  • People skills are valued more than technical skills. However, when it comes to training, they place a higher value on self-taught skills or those learned on the job above those learned in a formal school or program setting.
  • While occupation and position influence income, there is little correlation between an individual’s education alone and income earned. Our research subjects who have only a high school diploma are generally as successful in earnings as those with an associate degree.
  • Non-blue-collar workers are more likely to value people skills and see a need for more computer training, while blue-collar workers are more likely to value continual learning, work ethic and on-the-job training.
  • Most say specific skills are required for acquiring and keeping their jobs, but most of them learn those skills on the job.
  • The research suggests a two-tiered training approach may be in demand, with a first tier focusing on highly valued people skills and a second tier focusing on industry-specific technical skills.

King's last point is a lesson worth learning. The foundation skills for a successful, good-paying career for those without a four-year degree are not primarily occupation-specific skills. There are a set of so-called soft skills as well as lifelong learning skills that come first. Rather than pushing other people's kids into occupation-specific training, we need an education system that is designed to build these broad skills in all students.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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