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Illinois Center for Transition and Work

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Employability Skills

Employment is often considered an integral part of adult life. Individuals with disabilities, however, frequently have less employment success than their peers without disabilities. In response to decades of poor postschool employment outcomes, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA, 2014) now mandates that students with disabilities receive pre-employment transition services (pre-ETS). Pre-ETS provide opportunities for students to develop employability skills so that they are better prepared to enter the world of work. Employability skills are necessary to obtain and maintain employment.

Related ICTW Resources
What are Employability Skills?

Employability skills are general, nontechnical skills required for any job (see Table 1). They are needed for both entry-level and advanced positions (Ju et al., 2012). Employers consider employees with employability skills an asset because these skills are fundamental across all types of employment (Ju et al., 2012, 2014). 

What the Research Says

Although most research examines employability skills in general, there is a small body of research that focuses specifically on employability skills for individuals with disabilities. Ju et al. (2012) examined the skills employers consider important for entry-level employees with and without disabilities. Skills rated highest (in order of importance) for both individuals with and without disabilities were demonstrating personal integrity/honesty, ability to follow instructions, ability to show respect for others, and ability to be on time. In addition, employers were asked to rank the importance of five skill areas (see Table 1). The skill areas most valued by employers, in order of importance, were basic skills, basic work skills, social skills, personal traits, and higher order thinking skills. Employers ranked the importance of these skill areas the same for employees with and without disabilities. In a follow-up study, Ju et al. (2014) examined the skills educators considered most important for entry level workers and compared them with their 2012 findings. They found that educators and employers rated the same four skills as most important; however, educators ranked the importance of skill areas differently (i.e., social skills, personal traits, basic work skills, basic skills, higher-order thinking skills).

Employers are a natural source of information about the skills needed for employment; however, additional information can be gained from rehabilitation providers. These professionals work closely with employers to match individuals with disabilities to jobs, and they are often responsible for determining whether an individual receives rehabilitation services. Pickens and Dymond (2022) interviewed rehabilitation providers to determine the skills that impact their perceptions of an individual’s employability. Providers identified social skills as the most important skill needed for employment. Other skills identified as critical were customer service skills (e.g., interacting well with others), self-determination skills (e.g., self-direction, problem solving), and independent living skills (e.g., good hygiene, able to navigate the community). These findings are similar to previous studies with rehabilitation providers that identified self-determination, social and communication skills, general work skills, and independent living skills as important (Moon et al., 2011; Riesen et al., 2014).

Table 1
Sample Employability Skills Valued by Employers

Basic SkillsHigher Order Thinking SkillsBasic Work SkillsSocial SkillsPersonal Traits
Read with understanding
Actively listen
Speak clearly
Convey ideas in writing
Identify and self-correct mistakes
Think critically
Apply basic math
Resolve conflicts
Apply basic technology skills
Plan and work toward goals
Think creatively
Be on time
Seek help when needed
Follow schedules
Cooperate with others
Stay with a task until finished
Work well with diverse people
Monitor work quality
Respect others
Use appropriate language
Accept authority
Maintain personal appearance
Accept criticism
Work without supervision
Maintain personal integrity
Be responsible
Adapt well to change
Demonstrate motivation to work
Demonstrate interest in work

Note. Table based on Ju et al. (2012).

Guidelines for Practice

Given so many critical employability skills, it can be difficult to know which skills to teach and when to begin instruction. In Illinois, the age at which a student must have a transition component in their Individualized Education Program (IEP) is 14.5. Waiting until a student reaches transition age to begin teaching employability skills may be too late, particularly for students who require explicit instruction and repeated practice to learn. By initiating instruction on age-appropriate employability skills in the elementary or middle grades, students will have additional time to develop and refine their skills.  

To determine which skills are most important to teach, begin by using a variety of age-appropriate transition assessments to identify the student’s strengths, preferences, interests, and needs. Then, select skills for instruction that align with the transition assessment findings and support the student’s progress toward their postschool goals. Instruction on the selected skills need not involve creation of a separate course. In fact, instruction on most employability skills can easily be embedded into existing academic instruction. Importantly, skills learned in the classroom may not transfer to actual employment settings automatically. Providing students opportunities to demonstrate their skills within work-based learning experiences will help clarify whether the student has developed adequate employability skills. In summary, there are a variety of skills needed for employment. It is important to start teaching employability skills early to ensure students acquire the general, non-technical skills needed for all jobs.

Additional Resources

Ju, S., Pacha, J., Moore, K., & Zhang, D., (2014). Employability skills for entry-level employees with and without disabilities: A comparison between the perspectives of educators and employers. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 40, 203-212. 

Ju, S., Zhang, D., & Pacha, J. (2012). Employability skills valued by employers as important for entry-level employees with and without disabilities. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 35(1), 29-38. 

Moon, S., Simonsen, M. L., & Neubert, D. A. (2011). Perceptions of supported employment providers: What students with developmental disabilities, families, and educators need to know for transition planning. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 46(1), 94-105. 

Pickens, J.L., & Dymond, S.K. (2022). Keys to the employment services castle: Needed skills and experiences. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 56(2), 165-175.

Riesen, T., Schultz, J., Morgan, R., & Kupferman, S. (2014). School-to-work barriers as identified by special educators, vocational rehabilitation counselors, and community rehabilitation professionals. Journal of Rehabilitation, 80(1), 33-44.

Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act [WIOA] Pub. L. No. 113-128 Sat. 1425 (2014).