A New Geography of Skills

Published on Dec 10, 2019

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Clare Coffey

A New Geography of Skills


A New Geography of Skills

In The New Geography of Jobs, economist Enrico Moretti proposed a fascinating thesis. What if America’s most important economic shifts were occurring at a regional rather than national level? What if the economies of “brain hubs” like New York and Boston were profoundly different from those of former manufacturing capitals?

Seven years later, Strada Institute for the Future of Work and Emsi have proposed an exciting new extension of this hypothesis: A New Geography of Skills. The report offers two groundbreaking insights, each with the potential to reshape the way we think about work. First: skills, rather than credentials, are the basic units which define the economy, and the crucial connection between people and work. Secondly, those skills–and thus, the roles in the economy that they define–manifest differently in different regions.


Why Skills?

Up until now, most analysis of the workforce has relied on traditional Labor Market Information (LMI). This is the information we get from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other governmental offices. LMI is highly taxonomic. Each piece of data belongs to an occupational, industrial, or educational sub-category, which belongs to a larger category, and so on. Thus, a digital marketer might technically be classified as a marketing research analyst, which in turn falls under business operations analyst, which in turn falls under business and financial operations.

This taxonomic data has yielded, and will continue to yield, a wealth of insights. But how nuanced a picture can it really offer of this hypothetical digital marketer–someone who does SEO, content writing, and graphic design, someone whose job did not exist in its current form 10 years ago? To reap the benefits of precision and nuance, in addition to the broad view that traditional LMI offers, we need another tool.


Enter skill shapes. 

Instead of describing what category a worker falls into, skills describe the work our digital marketer actually does. A collection of related skills–as they define the persona of a worker, the activities of a job, or the demands of a local economy–are called a skill shape. Where a taxonomic category imposes relationships on actors in a labor market, a skill shape describes the exchanges that create relationships, as they occur in real time. And because we can now use natural language processing to capture the skills in profiles and job postings, we can track new and changing skill shapes as they emerge.

Source: A New Geography of Skills, Strada 2019

The fluidity of skill shapes corresponds to real human beings–who rarely fit into rigid or wooden taxonomies–much better than any analytical lens we’ve ever used. Consider, for example, a computer programmer.  This rigid occupational classification suggests a more or less uniform commodity. But nothing could be further from the truth. People don’t become adept in “computer programming,” they become adapt in SQL or C Sharp, Javascript or HTML, and endless permutations thereof. Furthermore, they may pick up vastly different secondary skills according to the contexts in which they’ve worked. Far from being uniform, “computer programmers” represent an array of unique and changeable capabilities, each of which will shape their work in different ways.

Source: A New Geography of Skills, Strada 2019


Skill Shapes in Local Economies

Skill shapes do not only permit a clearer view into the realities of working life–it allows us to see the subtle differences across different regional economies. 

For instance, by looking at the specific skills sought in different MSAs, we can see how manufacturing is changing over both time and space. Compared to the manufacturing of 20 years ago, the production environment of today is highly hybridized: it includes IT, engineering, and math skills as well as traditional manufacturing. 

And perhaps more importantly, we can see that this hybridization looks different in different regions. In San Diego, lean manufacturing has assumed enormous importance in the context of robot welding, while Wichita needs the same familiarity with manufacturing best practices in a less automated environment. In Hartford, a commercial aviation hub, the emphasis is less on ensuring that the shop floor runs smoothly, and more on designing the products manufactured through complex computer modeling programs.

Source: A New Geography of Skills, Strada 2019


Towards a New Vision of Work and Learning

The full report provides an in-depth picture of the complex ways regional skill shapes interact, from manufacturing in Wichita to digital marketing in Boise to cybersecurity in St. Louis. The result is a clarion call to action for policymakers, business leaders, educators, and learners. To create programs and pipelines that respond to the skill-driven reality we live in, all four must work together. Modular, life-long learning programs, a new emphasis on discrete skills rather than comprehensive credentials, and an increasing ability to speak the same language skills will prepare the American economy for the changes that have already occurred, and the challenges that lie ahead.


To read the report’s full findings and methodology, click here.