These skills make you most employable. Coding isn’t one – can that be right?

80,000 hours

If one skill is much harder to learn than another, it lowers the “return on investment” of time spent learning that skill. We think STEM skills might be faster to improve than “leadership” skills, which means that they are still contenders for the best skills to learn, especially technology.

We tried to estimate how difficult the skills are to learn with the “time to learn” score. If a skill is useful in jobs that take a long-time to enter, we rated it as “hard to learn”, and vice versa.

We found that many of the most employable skills take the longest to learn, such as judgement, active learning and critical thinking. The STEM skills, however, came out mid-table for “time to learn”.

This makes sense. Programming is a concrete body of knowledge that can clearly be improved. If you go to App Academy, you’ll probably be much better at coding than you were before.

It’s much less obvious how to improve your “judgement” or “social perceptiveness”. We expect that practice and mentorship can help, but they probably partly boil down to personality traits or general mental ability. A meta-analysis of efforts to teach critical thinking skills found that while critical thinking improves during college, it’s unclear that deliberate attempts to train critical thinking have any positive long-term effects, or that some majors improve critical thinking more than others.3

This means that depending on how you weigh the difficulty of learning each skill, STEM skills could still be among the best to learn.

Relatedly, even if you do improve your soft skills, it’s hard to prove to an employer that you possess them. This also reduces the boost you get from learning them.