In the professional world, employers seek a wide variety of worker competencies to ensure their workforce leads the business to success. While industry and occupation-specific competencies are important to performing well in a particular job setting, foundational competencies are recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration as a prerequisite for workers to learn industry-specific skills, and provide the base for success in school and in the world of work.1

What do foundational competencies consist of? According to the USDOL framework, they are made up of three different tiers: academic competencies, such as mathematics and reading learned in school; personal effectiveness skills, as we previously discussed in part two of this series; and workplace competencies, which we will discuss below. And while industry-specific hard skills are still valued and necessary in the workplace, LinkedIn's Chief Economist Guy Berger finds that employers remain in higher demand of fundamental skills such as teamwork and communication.2

Defining Workplace Competencies

A workplace competency is a required skill, attribute or behavior for a specific job used to define and measure an individual's effectiveness.3 Workplace competencies are manifestations of personal skills applied to the workplace, and include the necessary behaviors that an employee needs in order to work efficiently. These skills go beyond academic qualification to distinguish workers who not only have the educational credentials, but also the practical aptitude to perform well in the workplace. Furthermore, these competencies have the ability to characterize employees who represent potential management material.

Using the National Network of Business & Industry Associations' Common Employability Skills as reference, we are able to identify five competencies that are required of workers in the highest volume, highest turnover occupations in the U.S., such as positions in the retail, allied health and food service industries. The five workplace competencies are:

  1. Respect
  2. Customer Focus
  3. Planning / Organization
  4. Problem Solving / Decision Making
  5. Working with Tools and Technology

Respect: Respect manifests as the ability to work effectively with all kinds of people. It requires open-mindedness and tolerance when dealing with others with different backgrounds, perspectives and opinions. Employees who are respectful and tolerant of others will be better able to work within an organization. They will also be better equipped to help organizations serve a diverse range of customers.

Customer Focus: Customer focus enables employees to actively discern market demands, and identify and anticipate customer needs. It also means providing personalized service to customers. It describes a person's ability to evaluate customer satisfaction, with an eye toward improving future service. When 89% of consumers stop doing business with a company after experiencing poor customer service, employers must prioritize developing this skill in their workers to ensure the health of their business.4 Employees with a customer focus will better serve and satisfy customers, often prompting these customers to spend more.

On the other hand, Ruby Newell-Legner notes in Understanding Customers that it takes 12 positive experiences to make up for one unresolved negative experience.5 If employees are leaving customers dissatisfied, these same customers become less likely to return and more likely to share negative reviews, discouraging other potential customers.

Planning & Organization: This skill set involves the ability to plan and prioritize to accomplish assigned tasks and manage time effectively. It also involves knowing how to allocate time and resources efficiently. Employees who can plan and organize effectively are able to help their companies meet deadlines and get tasks done even when resources are scarce. In a recent analysis of 2.3 million LinkedIn profiles for the Wall Street Journal, LinkedIn's team of economic researchers found that over 56% of employees touting strong organization skills were hired over the course of a year, making "organization' the second most in-demand soft skill sought by employers.6

Problem-Solving & Decision-Making: Employers want to know their workers can apply critical reasoning to find solutions to workplace problems. It requires the ability to identify and define problems, and encompasses the need to devise alternate solutions. In the same LinkedIn study mentioned above, "critical thinking' " and essential part of the problem-solving process " also ranks as the fifth most in-demand soft skill. 

One application of this skill set is handling and resolving customer complaints soundly and patiently, and differentiating typical customer complaints and severe complaints. By fostering the problem-solving and decision-making skills of their employees, organizations will know the individuals in their workforce can handle unanticipated problems that arise, particularly in relations with customers.

Working with Tools and Technology: Workers who are skilled at working with tools and technology possess the ability to select, use and maintain appropriate technical means to execute workplace activity and solve problems. They know how to use social media tools judiciously. They seek out opportunities to improve knowledge of tools and technologies that may assist their employers, streamline work and improve productivity. Employees who are resourceful with tools and technology will be more efficient and effective workers. Furthermore, workers who go out of their way to learn more about the tools they have at their disposal demonstrate initiative and set an example for others.

The Importance of Workplace Competencies

Workers with solid workplace skills are more valuable to their employers, particularly in service industries such as restaurant, retail and human resources, where interpersonal interactions are most frequent.7 Their planning, problem solving and technological skills make them perform better, and their respectful attitude and customer focus fosters a positive working atmosphere.

These qualities make employees with workplace skills better candidates for managerial promotions, too. Having or lacking these qualities can make the difference between getting hired and promoted or being passed over. Even when a particular position requires a high school diploma, or minimal secondary academic studies, employees with the appropriate foundational workplace competencies have the connective tissue that surrounds the skills that are required of them. By helping equip the rising workforce with these skills, organizations can make them better prepared to succeed in the workplace.

Recommended for you: Developing a Career-Ready Workforce, Part 2: Five Personal Effectiveness Skills to Look for in Your Employees

Sources: Photo credit. (1) CareerOneStop Competency Models (2) WSJ: The Soft Skills Employers Are Looking For (3) Houston Chronicle: What are Workplace Competencies? (4) RightNow Technologies: 2011 Customer Experience Impact Report (5) Help Scout: 75 Customer Service Facts (6) LinkedIn: Soft Skills Are Increasingly Crucial to Getting Your Dream Job (7)