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What are essential skills?

The definition of essential skills

When talking about skills is is crucial at the outset to differentiate between some of the potentially confusing terminology –

  • Knowledge: content which can be recalled, understood and explained
  • Character attributes: the choices individuals make, manifested as attitudes or behaviours
  • Skills: the ability to successfully enact a repeatable process

Understanding the differentiation, we then focus on skills, in which we define three broad types of skills:

  • Technical Skills: those skills that are specific to a particular sector or role, sometimes drawing off a particular body of knowledge. These skills are not easily transferred beyond the sector or role to which they relate.
  • Essential Skills: those highly transferable skills that everyone needs to do almost any job, which support the application of specialist knowledge and technical skills
  • Basic Skills: these are literacy and numeracy, and basic digital skills.

We use the term essential skills for three reasons:

  • People need these skills to do practically any job, in any sector, in any part of the world.
  • They are fundamental beyond the workplace, whether that’s making life decisions, navigating relationships and making personal choices.
  • They are non-negotiable in education and throughout a child’s development. 

One of the frequent criticisms about essential skills used to be that it was hard to know what they really were. Different taxonomies and terminologies proliferated, but they rarely went beyond another list of terms and sometimes their definitions. That meant that teachers regularly reported that while they understood the importance of these skills, they didn’t know where to begin in building them, so that is why the first step was to define essential skills: those highly transferable skills which almost everyone needs to do almost any job, and which support the application of technical skills and knowledge. We identified eight skills:

  • Listening: The receiving, retaining and processing of information or ideas.
  • Speaking: The oral transmission of information or ideas.
  • Problem solving: The ability to find a solution to a situation or challenge.
  • Creativity: The use of imagination and the generation of new ideas.
  • Staying positive: The ability to use tactics and strategies to overcome setbacks and achieve goals.
  • Aiming high: The ability to set clear, tangible goals and devise a robust route to achieving them.
  • Leadership: Supporting, encouraging and developing others to achieve a shared goal.
  • Teamwork: Working cooperatively with others towards achieving a shared goal.

The Skills Builder Universal Framework breaks each of the essential skills down into a sequence of steps, taking individuals from being an absolute beginner through to mastery. The Framework was developed by the Essential Skills Taskforce which included organisations such as The Careers & Enterprise Company, Business in the Community (BITC), The Chartered Institute for Personnel Development (CIPD), the Gatsby Foundation, and more. Evolving since 2008, the Skills Builder approach is now the de facto language and method for building essential skills for millions of individuals across the world. 

Why are essential skills important?

At an individual level, people with higher levels of essential skills experience improved social mobility, employment, earnings, job satisfaction and life satisfaction. Where we are able to meaningfully analyse skills together, we find compelling indications that individuals are able to leverage their basic skills, qualifications, or experience only when they also have an adequate level of essential skills.

Skills Builder Partnership’s Essential Skills Tracker 2023 skills research explores the impact of essential skills on the workplace, finding evidence that they affect productivity, employability, employment and social mobility:

  • The cost of low essential skills to the UK in 2022 was £22.2bn – comparable to the cost of low numeracy. 
  • UK workers overwhelmingly recognise the importance of essential skills for success within their career, with a higher proportion (92%) identifying them as more vital than almost any other skill.
  • There is an annual wage premium associated with higher levels of essential skills of up to £4,600 for the average person.
  • From a social mobility perspective, the research revealed two groups of less advantaged workers: about 13% who, with a comprehensive set of skills, enjoy strong income, life satisfaction and job satisfaction; and 17% of workers who, with low levels of essential skills, don’t break out of the skills trap.

Essential skills list and definitions of essential skills

What are listening skills?

Considering ‘how to listen’ or improve listening skills is all about being able to effectively receive information - whether it comes from customers, colleagues or stakeholders.

Initially, the skill steps concentrate on being able to listen effectively to others - including remembering short instructions, understanding why others are communicating and recording important information.

Individuals then focus on how they demonstrate that they are listening effectively, thinking about body language, open questioning and summarising and rephrasing.

Beyond that, the focus is on being aware of how they might be being influenced by a speaker, through tone and language.

The final steps are about critical listening - comparing perspectives, identifying biases, evaluating ideas and being objective.

What are speaking skills?

Speaking skills are all about how to communicate effectively with others, being mindful of whether they are talking to customers, colleagues or other stakeholders and in different settings.

Initially, this skill focuses on being able to speak clearly - first with well known individuals and small groups and then with those who are not known.

The next stage is about being an effective speaker by making points logically, by thinking about what listeners already know and using appropriate language, tone and gesture.

Beyond that, individuals focus on speaking engagingly through use of facts and examples, visual aids, and their expression and gesture.

Beyond that stage, speakers will be adaptive to the response of their listeners and ready for different scenarios. The final steps focus on speaking influentially - using structure, examples, facts and vision to persuade listeners.

What are problem solving skills?

Problem solving skills are about how we can solve problems. Although part of problem solving is technical know-how and experience, there are also transferable tools that individuals can develop and use.

The first steps focus on being able to follow instructions to complete tasks, seeking help and extra information if needed. The next stage focuses on being able to explore problems by creating and assessing different potential solutions. This includes more complex problems, without a simple technical solution.

Beyond this, the focus is on exploring complex solutions - thinking about causes and effects, generating options, and evaluating those options. This extends into analysis using logical reasoning and hypotheses.

Finally, individuals implement strategic plans to solve complex problems, assess their success, and draw out learning for the future.

What are creativity skills? 

Thinking about what are creativity skills, we can separate them into four general sections within the steps of the Universal Framework. This essential skill is all about generating innovations or ideas which can then be honed through the problem-solving process.

The first few steps focus on the individual's confidence in imagining different situations and sharing their ideas.

The focus is then on generating ideas - using a clear brief, making improvements to something that already exists and combining concepts.

Individuals then apply creativity in the context of their work and their wider life. They can build off this to develop ideas using tools like mind mapping, questioning, and considering different perspectives.

The most advanced steps focus on building effective innovation in group settings and by seeking out varied experiences and stimuli. Finally, individuals support others to innovate, by sharing tools, identifying the right tools for the situation and through coaching.

What are staying positive skills?

Staying positive is all about individuals being equipped to manage their emotions effectively and being able to remain motivated, and ultimately to motivate others, even when facing setbacks.

The early steps focus on identifying emotions - particularly feeling positive or negative. Building off that is the ability to keep trying - and then staying calm, thinking about what went wrong, and trying to cheer up and encourage others.

The focus then turns to identifying new opportunities in difficult situations, sharing those, and adapting or creating plans accordingly. At more advanced steps, individuals identify and manage risks and gains in opportunities.

Finally, individuals support others to stay positive by managing their own response, helping others to see opportunities and creating plans to achieve them.

What are aiming high skills?

Aiming high is the ability to set clear, tangible goals and set a route to achieve them. This skill is about being able to plan effectively - both to achieve organisational goals, and also to set their own personal development targets. Initially, this is about knowing when something is too difficult, and having a sense of what doing well looks like for an individual.

The focus is then about working with care and attention, taking pride in success and having a positive approach to new challenges. Building on this, individuals set goals for themselves, informed by an understanding of what is needed, and then be able to order and prioritise tasks, secure resources and involve others effectively.

At the higher steps, the focus is creating plans informed by an individual's skill set, with clear targets, and building on external views. At the most advanced level, individuals develop long-term strategies. These are informed by an assessment of internal and external factors, structured through regular milestones and feedback loops.

What are leadership skills? 

Leadership skills are relevant not only for individuals in positions of management with formal power, but also for individuals working with peers in teams.

At the earliest stages, the focus is on basic empathy - understanding their own feelings, being able to share them, and recognising the feelings of others. The focus is on managing - dividing up tasks, managing time and sharing resources, managing group discussions and dealing with disagreements.

Beyond that, individuals build their awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses, and those of their teams. This allows them to allocate tasks effectively. They then build techniques to mentor, coach and motivate others. At the highest steps, individuals will be able to reflect on their own leadership style and understand its effect on others.

Ultimately, they should be able to build on their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses, and adapt their leadership style to the situation.

What are teamwork skills?

Teamwork skills apply to working within both formal and informal teams, and also with customers, clients or other stakeholders. Initially, this is about individuals fulfilling expectations around being positive, behaving appropriately, being timely and reliable and taking responsibility. This extends to understanding and respecting diversity of others' cultures, beliefs and backgrounds.

The next steps focus on making a contribution to a team through group decision making, recognising the value of others' ideas and encouraging others to contribute too. Beyond that, individuals improve their teams through managing conflict and building relationships beyond the immediate team. At the top steps, individuals focus on how they influence their team through suggesting improvements and learning lessons from setbacks.

Ultimately, individuals support the team by evaluating others strengths and weaknesses and bringing in external expertise and relationships.

Essential skills in education

All young people need to learn essential skills to ensure they receive a good education. Essential skills are core to this education as without them, many do not achieve their full potential and the benefits of a complete skills portfolio (Essential Skills Tracker 2023). 

87% of secondary schools and colleges in England have a touchpoint with the eight essential skills and the Universal Framework. Within education, essential skills development is underpinned by six best practice principles: 

  1. Keep it simple: A consistent focus on the essential skills helps ensure everyone’s shared understanding and makes building them as tangible as possible.
  2. Start early, keep going: Starting as young as 3 years old and committing to keeping it up allows time for mastery, and ensures the skills help unlock other learning.
  3. Measure it: Quantifying skills ensures a balanced understanding of strengths and weaknesses, highlights progress and demonstrates next steps.
  4. Focus tightly: Building skills should build upon students’ previous learning, and focus on achieving mastery by giving the skills the time and focus they need.
  5. Keep practising: To accelerate progress in the essential skills, they should be applied and reinforced elsewhere in the curriculum and outside it.
  6. Bring it to life: Keep it relevant by taking children and young people out of the classroom and by bringing real-life problems and challenges into it.

Essential skills are also crucial in preparing those in Higher Education and Further Education. Many education institutions working with essential skills are on an Accelerator programme with us, working in collaboration to develop a complete strategy to developing essential skills in education. 

For more examples of essential skills development in education, visit the Case Studies Showcase

Essential skills in not for profit and impact organisations

There are many diverse groups outside of education and employment that are building essential skills. These skills are embedded into so many areas such as employability, sports, the arts, volunteering, parental engagement, inclusion and retraining. This is because the essential skills really are essential – spanning all parts of an individuals’ life. For example, a child or young person being taught essential skills in school or college might be able to apply those skills on the sports pitch, on an expedition or through debate. Programmes accredited are listed on the Skills Builder Impact Directory, which showcases successful programmes across programme design, impact measurement, and staff training. 

Essential skills for employment and careers

More than ever, employers must equip their staff with high levels of transferable essential skills, such as problem solving and teamwork, to ensure their business will be able to adapt in the future. For example, businesses need to prioritise skills that will help their employees take on new emerging roles or challenges an organisation might face. This is why essential skills are so powerful – for their transferability and universal application across sectors, roles, seniority, stage of career.

Skills Builder has also developed the Careers Explorer dataset – outlining the level of the eight essential skills required for almost every job in today’s economy, in line with the extended Standard Occupational Classification (SOC), for those interested in what essential skills you need for different jobs and careers. 

You can try out the Careers Explorer online tool and select a job title to see the levels of each essential skill required, and you can compare jobs too. Each skill profile shows the range, from the minimum to maximum level of skill score for the selected job.

The Careers Explorer has many practical uses across contexts and scenarios. For example, it enables analysis of the essential skills requirements in the context of any research incorporating a Standard Occupational Classification – for instance, into apprenticeships, higher education, or the labour market. For businesses and employers, the Careers Explorer can inform hiring processes and decisions, grounding recruitment and development in evidence. You can explore the essential skills profile for a job, or set of jobs, to inform job descriptions, candidate selection, and professional development journeys. 

What essential skills are in demand?

Essential skills like problem solving and teamwork are in great demand with the rise of AI, automation and technology, in the face of economical challenges and alongside broader societal shifts and expectations. 

When we combine labour market data with our Careers Explorer data, we find that demand for essential skills has grown in the last decade. The trend seems to have accelerated since the Covid-19 pandemic, especially in Creativity and Problem Solving.

Labour Market Essential Skills Demand Over Time, 2012-2022

Essential skills like speaking, listening, problem solving or teamwork are consistently referenced in top lists of future skills, for example by the World Economic Forum or LinkedIn or National Foundation for Educational Research

The impact of essential skills

Essential skills are critical to individuals’ success. While the importance of skills including teamwork, communication, creativity and self-management have long seemed intuitively important, we have been systematically working to build the evidence base to show exactly how crucial they are – and why. We have found robust evidence that higher levels of essential skills set individuals up for the rest of their lives:

  • In the UK, higher levels of essential skills boost earnings – moving from the lower quartile to the upper quartile essential skill score is associated with a wage premium of about £3,600-£4,600 per year
  • UK workers value those essential skills – 92% believe essential skills are important to their careers, and over half would consider changing job to get more opportunities to build them Essential skills predict job satisfaction as strongly as income, and individuals with higher essential skills also report higher life satisfaction 
  • Individuals with higher essential skill levels are 25-50% less likely to be out of employment or education

By reviewing the evidence base with partner researchers, we’ve also seen that:

  • Overwhelmingly, young people see the value of essential skills across key aspects of their lives for transition, including academic performance (78%), university entrance (66%), successful  recruitment (91%), progression in employment (91%), and overcoming wider life challenges (89%).
  • There are strong links between higher essential skill scores and self- efficacy and perseverance of effort.

However, it is also clear that opportunities to build those essential skills are not distributed fairly:

  • In education, learners with lower family incomes, parents or carers who are less engaged with their education, or who attend a non-selective school make less progress in building their essential skills
  • On entering the labour market, individuals displaying lower levels of those skills earn less, and have fewer opportunities to build those skills further
  • This means that individuals’ essential skills often peak by age 40 – unless they receive consistent opportunities across their careers to be taught and apply those skills 

If we were to fix this problem at the level of the UK, the value to the economy would be around £22.2bn per year – akin to resolving the gaps in numeracy and literacy.

Read more about our impact at

Further resources for essential skills

  • The Universal Framework for Essential Skills: The Skills Builder Universal Framework is the world’s leading tool for measuring and building essential skills. It breaks the 8 essential skills down into a sequence of steps, starting with absolute beginner through to mastery.
  • Skills Builder Benchmark: Benchmark is the innovative tool for individuals to assess their levels of essential skills. Use it to understand your or your teams’ skill levels and target professional development. 
  • Skills Builder Careers Explorer: The Skills Builder Careers Explorer maps the essential skills profiles for 1,000+ jobs, from farriers to fundraisers, marine engineers to midwives, to the Standard Occupational Classifications 2010 and 2020.
  • Skills Builder Launchpad: Skills Builder Launchpad supports people to build their essential skills, step-by-step, through interactive modules.
  • Skills Builder Hub: Access hundreds of teaching resources, a group-level formative assessment tool, and online teacher training modules, tailored to educators on Hub. 
  • The Missing Piece: The Essential Skills that Education Forgot: Tom Ravenscroft reflects on a decade of building these skills through an award-winning social enterprise with over 150,000 children and young people to ask this critical question and more: Why are we so quick to presume these skills are innate, or just picked up along the way? How are they really built and how can we use this knowledge as teachers, parents, or even in our own lives?
  • Skills Builder Handbook for Educators: Teaching and assessing essential skills: This Handbook helps any educator to use the Skills Builder approach with their learners – whether in primary school, secondary school, college or special school. Deliberately practical, it supports any educator to break down essential skills into teachable steps.