Top Skills for 2021

Published on Jan 29, 2021

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Emsi Burning Glass

Last week we talked about the seven most important job categories for the US in 2021: logistics, healthcare, tech, core business functions, education, skilled trades, and public safety. But what are the top skills required to do these jobs?

In this post we identify the top skills for 2021, based on the skills requested or required in hundreds of thousands of job postings during 2019-2020. These in-demand skills fall into three categories:

  1. Human skills

  2. Technical skills

  3. Hybrid skills 

A few quick definitions.

Technical skills are easy to define and are usually taught in the classroom. Java script, Excel, accounting, plumbing, cybersecurity, surgery—think of the abilities to perform discrete tasks that require specialized domain knowledge. 

Hybrid skills are just what they sound like: skills that ride the fence, blends of both human and technical skills. For example: operations, strategic planning, or business acumen.

It’s the idea of human skills that can be tricky to grasp. They’re also (frequently) underestimated or taken for granted. Human skills are abilities that we commonly associate with the labor market outcomes of humanities or liberal arts grads. As the name implies, human skills spring for our humanity, setting us apart from machines. And they are the fundamental building blocks of our work, though you may not ever take a class or earn a certificate with their name. 

Communication, problem-solving, self-discipline, sympathy, creativity, conflict-resolution… These are the life-on-life skills that give you a great customer experience on Amazon, that help you relax as you talk with the doctor, that turn a conversation with a sales rep into an enjoyable experience. 

Human skills reveal that work is so much more than just getting the job done and coming home with a paycheck. Human skills help us connect to each other as people (something many of us lost over the past year). They are the two-way street that improves both our lives and the lives of those around us. With human skills, we can make the world a bit better, a little less broken. And as you’ll see in the next section, human skills are both critical to the economy and hard to find.

So let’s dive in.

Leadership is the No. 1 human skill for 2021

Leadership is a combination of serving and managing others, influencing people, taking responsibility, owning mistakes, and jumping on a wide range of problems without being a crazy person or lighting your hair on fire. (Never light the hair on fire. That’s not leadership.) Leaders, in a word, are self-motivated motivators of others.

Leadership is in demand everywhere. It doesn’t matter whether you are a nurse, warehouse manager, front end developer, data scientist, account exec, tax analyst, or mechanic—employers in every industry need people who can lead. Over the past two years, 13 million job postings required leadership, an 11% increase in demand. This fervent need indicates that a primary pain point in the labor market is lack of leadership

The next three human skills are closely related to leadership: influencing, accountability, and self-discipline

Influencing is what leadership looks like in action. Influencers encourage, inspire, and usher people to new heights. Accountability means you accept responsibility and answer to others (with a good attitude). Self-discipline is about staying focused, getting your work done, and self-regulating. 

The next two skills, troubleshooting and critical thinking, tie back to one of our favorite Emsi aphorisms: All work is problem-solving. No matter your job, you are solving problems for someone, somewhere. And since most jobs don’t come with an exhaustive instruction manual, people need you to be a self-motivated problem-solver who hunts down messes and conundrums, analyzes critically, and comes up with a solid solution. 

Innovation, investigation, and curiosity are close cousins of the above. They are the constant drive to improve, to think outside the box, to create new value for others instead of getting in a rut and just going through the motions. Innovation in particular was requested in over 6 million job postings, a 25% increase in demand over the past two years. 

Collaboration might have the curse of sounding buzz-wordy, but it’s essentially teamwork, and teamwork is vital. Without teamwork, companies disintegrate. Collaboration helps you step out of the narrow, individualistic mindset of the lone ranger and into the selfless psyche of a visionary who sees the big picture: everyone working together to bless clients, coworkers, and shareholders. 

Most sought-after hybrid skills include operations & research

Take a look at operations, the second most-mentioned skill of any kind, and the first most-mentioned hybrid skill. Operations is a good example of a hybrid skill because it combines human traits with technical and vertical skills. It’s a broad term that refers to how things are run, organized, and sustained, so operations can really apply to anything: warehouse, tech company, hospital. You name it, there is big demand for organized people who make sure everything runs smoothly. This skill was mentioned as much as leadership and appeared in more than 13 million job postings (+13%) since early January 2019.

Another key hybrid skill is research: the systematic investigation into problems. One of America’s biggest needs going into 2021 is for people who conduct research to better understand problems in order to figure out improvements, solutions, and best ways forward. Research can take many forms: medical research, academic research, data research, online research.

Scan through the rest of our hybrid list. Curious about a skill? Learn more at the Emsi skills library.

Technical skills

Technical skills are the more teachable, vertical, quantifiable abilities that fit specific jobs. Unlike human skills, which are more horizontal and required for nearly every sort of job, technical skills can vary wildly from occupation to occupation. So for this section, we break out the top technical skills for the various career categories and sub-categories.


The top technical skills for logistics are pretty straightforward. Of course you need a license and a good driving record, and over-the-road driving refers to the mental and physical endurance you need for long-haul trucking. Note the skill with the fastest growth (+240%) since 2019: collision avoidance systems, which is the use of lasers, radar, and cameras to reduce accidents. 


  • Nursing – Naturally, nursing is dominated by skills you’d expect such as basic life support, ACLS, and CPR. Of course, nurses need (and have) a host of skills in addition to these, but many of these skills for nurses are assumed rather than spelled out on job postings. Nursing is a highly licensed profession, and employers therefore don’t need to provide an exhaustive list of necessary skills—for those skills are defined in the nursing license itself.

  • Mental Health – This is a blend of traditional nursing and mental health practices of assessment and evaluation, so they require nursing skills (basic life support, CPR) plus skills like psychiatry and psychology. The demand for psychiatry and basic life support grew the most over the past two years (+83% and +77%, respectively).

  • Other Healthcare – Here’s a miscellaneous category requiring a wider variety of skills. Besides nursing and basic life support, we see respiratory therapy and medical and health technology.


  • Data – This category, like all tech, is dominated by programming languages such as Python, SQL, R, Java. Tech skills are legion and apt to change, so developers need to stay on top of emerging skills and update their own skillsets. Amazon Web Services (+55%) and data engineering (+44%) were the two fastest-growing skills in terms of demand. 

  • IT/Security – Python, automation, and site reliability engineering were the skills that grew the most within IT and cybersecurity. The field of cybersecurity in particular is desperate for qualified workers.

  • Software – Languages, languages, languages. The multilingual software developer is a boon for employers, so it’s not surprising that the top in-demand skills for developers include Java, SQL, Python, and a myriad more.

  • Scrum – One of tech’s much smaller, niche categories is project management. Jira, a project management tool, is the fastest-growing skill here.

Core business functions

  • Sales, customer service, and marketing – Sales skills, the lifeblood of every company, dominate here: selling techniques, business development, sales process, negotiation, and business to business. Interestingly, software as a service (SaaS, +56%) grew the most over the past two years. 

  • HR – People are the most important ingredient at any company. It is no surprise that HR skills are important this year. The demand for accountability (+104%) and emergency communication systems (+141%) has absolutely catapulted since early 2019. 

  • Finance & operations – Finance involves big-picture financial strategy, while operations is in some ways a combination of sales, marketing, and finance, but with a focus on long-term strategy and decision-making. The fastest-growing skills here include auditing (+26%) and planning (+19%). 


The top in-demand skills for education jobs are rehabilitation (+70%), Individualized Education Programs (+76%), and speech-language pathology (+44%). The spiking demand for such skills could reflect the sad fact that mental and emotional troubles are afflicting American students more than ever after 2020.

Skilled Trades

“I’m never going to use this in the real world” doesn’t work regarding math when it comes to skilled trades. You need those math skills after all! Math was the fastest-growing skill the past two years (+55%). Other in-demand skills include food services (+37%), HVAC (+31%), and good driving record (+28%).  

Public Safety

Like the skills for nurses, the top in-demand skills for cops are no-brainers. You need a combination of raw on-the-job ability (investigation, law enforcement, crime prevention), plus basic medical skills (first aid, CPR), and the nuts and bolts of psychology (psychology, psychological evaluations). The demand for CPR (+68%) shot up the most over the past two years. 

Application: What your organization can do about these skills

Higher education

The top skills for 2021 will help you do what we call skillify: translating your curricular content (e.g., course descriptions, syllabi) into the skill-based language of the modern labor market. Consider these top skills in terms of your institution’s offerings. For example, look at the No. 1 human skill: leadership. Is leadership a big theme in your humanities or soft skills programs? Are you touching on the importance of being a leader in your IT, healthcare, or business schools? How about in your logistics and mechanics programs? Weave these skills into your learning content. See Emsi’s new ebook for more.


We have just discussed the top skills for 2021 at the national level, but what do they look like for your particular region? Does your community see the same skill needs? What are the biggest pain points for the industries and employers in your city or county? How can you work to close those skill gaps? 


The skills in this post are in demand across the board. Everybody else is after the same talent, so if you want to find qualified workers with the right combination of human and technical skills, be prepared to cast a wider net. Broaden your requirements. Distinguish between vital skills, important skills, and skills you can either do without or else train into a new hire. See how you can use skills to hire sales, marketing, and PR in particular. 

Contact us if you have questions or comments about this data.