Talking about job skills: Researchers develop a common language

Anu: “I ran a 5k in 37 minutes.”

Prasad: “I ate nine muffins as a post-race snack.”

Anu and Prasad may be talking about the same 5k race. Or not. It’s hard to tell because they don’t share the same way of talking about racing. This makes it hard to compare their experiences. Who ran faster? Who ate more muffins? We can’t answer those questions without getting different information from each of them.

Existing job skills surveys have a similar problem. They may ask about a worker’s skills and abilities, but they’ll ask it in a way that makes it hard to compare to other available labor market data. Researchers Italo Garcia Lopez, Nicole Maestas, and Kathleen J. Mullen, wanted to be able to link the U.S. Department of Labor’s O*NET database, which provides objective measurements of the skills and experiences needed for existing U.S. jobs, to workers’ self-assessed abilities.

To do this, the researchers created a survey that asked participants to assess their abilities the same way the O*NET describes job requirements. This made it possible to compare the survey answers directly with the O*NET job descriptions to get a better sense of the respondents’ job prospects. In 2018, participants in the RAND American Life Panel answered the researchers’ questionnaire. Lopez Garcia, Maestas, and Mullen then compared those answers to O*NET job descriptions.

Compared to O*NET’s average job demands, the survey data shows that self-reported abilities are high. Ability goes down modestly with age, with physical abilities declining the most and cognitive abilities declining the least.

The researchers define work capacity as the number of jobs an individual can do given their education, from being able to do all jobs to being able to no jobs. Compared to someone unable to do any jobs, an individual with the same education able to do all potential jobs is

  • 15 to 21 percentage points more likely to be employed;
  • 7 to 10 percentage points more likely to work past age 65 or 70, depending on their age;
  • 17 to 25 percentage points more likely to return to work after a temporary disability;
  • 9 to 12 percentage points more likely to return to work after retiring;
  • 10 to 17 percentage points less likely to be an SSDI recipient.

Being able to make direct comparisons between workers’ skills and current job requirements might help develop policies that encourage longer work lives. This could benefit individuals’ retirement preparation and reduce the OASDI trust funds’ imbalances.

For further details, read the researchers’ working paper, MRDRC WP 2019-400.