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General or Specific Skills: the Challenge of Higher Education

If higher education institutions focus too much on delivering specific, job-focused skills, they run the risk of developing a graduating class of specialists whose jobs depend on the continued success of a particular industry. Arming graduates with a widely applicable baseline of skills allows them to enter any industry and find success through hard work and continuous learning. Photo by Jcookfisher.

In a previous article I explored which skills are academically considered desirable and which abilities are needed in the real labor world, and concluded that there are differences between both areas.

In this article, I would like to answer a question asked by many higher education programs and professionals: Should programs in higher education develop general skills, or should they focus on developing specialized graduates?

My personal experience after seeing so many generations of graduates of educational psychology in Mexico, tells me that the best option is for institutions to develop general skills, because unless each graduate is guaranteed a specific job when they complete their studies, there is no way they can learn the necessary practical skills for carrying out any professional work at 100%. In fact, even with specific skills it is difficult for a graduate to simply step into a job. Each graduate must recognize and maximize all their skills developed at the academy and conform themselves and their competencies to labor-market needs.

Some higher education programs must understand that society has no idea what the developed skills of each graduate are, and this can complicate the job search. For example, do you know all the skills from someone who has earned a degree in geomatics?

When institutions specialize, their goal is that their graduates can step into employment. However, the world economy shows that people may lose their jobs from one day to the next, even with highly specialized skills. Although highly-specialized and well-trained individuals can earn higher wages, they are also among the first budget cuts that are made by companies in trouble.

Higher education programs seek to respond to social needs, but society is constantly changing. For example, 20 years ago nobody knew what social media was; 10 years ago it was not very common for individuals to request programs about forensic research. Changes in technology and popular culture have certainly changed the demand for learning in these areas, though.

So using only my common sense, if institutions want to develop successful graduates, they should be developing programs that encourage flexible thinking, creativity and general skills, hoping that graduates have a strong enough base level of competency at graduation and an ability to learn that will allow them to shape those skills as required to succeed. This, of course, would give greater opportunities of finding future employment and having a more solid career.

There is research showing geographical trends in terms of skills. For example, jobs that require specialized knowledge tend to be concentrated in bigger cities in the United States, as shown in the research of Gabe and Abel (2012), which also found that jobs requiring generic knowledge are much more common than those requiring highly specialized.

Another study done by Bacolod, Blum, and Strange (2009) analyzed the role of soft skills and their concentration in the cities and industries. These types of skills enable more productive interactions since most successful workers, especially in big cities, typically have high levels of this type of skills.

A study in England shows that there are differences between early and late specialization in the context of higher education. Using a survey conducted in 1980, a study found that individuals who started working in a different area than their degree specialization had lower wages than those working in their area of academic development, but the differences disappear only few years later (Malamud, 2010).

Guthrie, in 2009 developed another study on graduates of doctoral programs in education, professional practice and educational research and found that even if programs develop different skills, graduates can find a job in a variety of areas because employers have no specific knowledge about the applicant’s particular skill; the focus of the employer is on the applicant’s general competencies.

Servage (2009) proposes that the doctoral programs prepare graduates to participate in non-academic careers based on the theory of human capital. In effect, he argues such graduates have much better chances of finding a job outside higher education than trying to exclusively access the academy, which is every day more and more limited.

In conclusion, I can say that the best thing higher education institutions can do for their students is allow them to generate as many skills, techniques as possible, both academic and personal. There will always be emerging fields, while others shrink, so leaving the academy with a set of knowledge and skills that could apply across the board is best. My recommendation is graduates should continue learning and diversifying all their knowledge to suit their current position. After all, you never know where your base skills will be necessary.

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Gabe, TM., an d Abel, JR. (2012) Specialized knowledge and the geographic concentration of occupations. Journal od Economic  Geography. 12 (2) 435-453.

Dzib Goodin, A. (2012) Successful at the academy, less so at finding employment: different skills needed. Available at:

Dzib Goodin, a. (2012) Creativity, when a + b is equal to innovation. Available at:

Bacolod, M., Blum, BS., and Strange, WC. (2009) Urban interactions: soft skills versus specialization. Journal of Economic Geography. 9 (2) 227-262.

Malamud, O. (2010) Breadth versus depth: The timing of specialization in Higher Education. Labour. 24 (4) 359-390.

Guthrie, JW. (2009) The case for a modern doctor of education degree (Ed. D): Multipurpose education doctorates no longer apropiated. Peabody Journal of Education. 84 (1) 3-8.

Servage, L. (2009) Alternative and professional doctoral programs: what is driving the demand?. Studies in Higher Education. 34 (7) 765-779.

Kahanec,  M., and Zimmermann, KF. (2010) High-Skilled inmigration policy in Europe. Institute of Study of Labor. Germany.

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