In comic books, the truly outstanding superheroes are the ones who have multiple powers. The Flash has only one superpower: moving super-fast. But Superman can fly, see with X-ray vision, stop bullets, lift any weight, and so forth. Batman has a bat-gadget to deal with almost any situation.
You don’t need to be a superhero to succeed in the workplace, but it helps to have multiple skills. Sometimes the addition of just one skill to your repertoire can make you stand out from other job candidates. On the basis of anecdotal evidence, I’ve long been convinced that Excel is an especially potent skill. To confirm my hunch, I did some research in skill-related databases developed for the U.S. Department of Labor. I wanted to answer these questions: In terms of earnings, just how powerful is command of Excel? What advantage does it give when combined with another skill? Is it useful only in the work of accountants and bankers, or in a range of jobs?
I started with the O*NET database,1 which rates 862 occupations on the level of ability they require for 36 different skills. For each skill, I divided the occupations into five zones of ability. Then I computed the average annual earnings of the occupations in each zone for each skill. These salary figures were based on the May 2011 median earnings estimates of the Occupational Employment Statistics survey.2 So to give you an example, one of the occupations is called “Management of Material Resources”, which encompasses jobs that range from Janitor (1st) and Bathroom Attendant (1st Quintile) to Librarian (5th Quintile) and Interior Designers (5th Quintile).
It turns out that for most skills, just as you would expect, the jobs that require a higher level of ability also pay a better salary. You can see that by looking at the “No Excel” column below for the skills Writing, Judgment and Decision Making, Management of Material Resources, and Instructing. (The third quintile is a middling level of ability; the fifth quintile is the zone with the highest ability.) For these and, in fact, for all the skills in the O*NET taxonomy (other than a few skills that characterize blue-collar work), there are higher payoffs for
Now, consider the “With Excel” column. These represent the earnings of the subset of occupations within each zone that also typically use Microsoft Excel (according to the Tools and Technologies table of the O*NET database). You’ll note that for each zone, having this additional skill requirement boosts the average earnings. For the occupations in the third quintile of Management of Material Resources, the addition of Excel represents a whopping 40 percent increase in earnings.
Test Your Excel Skills
As an answer to my last question—which jobs benefit from Excel?—I should point out that financial careers are not the only Excel-using jobs in the high-skill zone. For example, in the fifth quintile for Management of Material Resources, some of the occupations that use Excel include Advertising and Promotions Managers; Interior Designers; Librarians; Urban and Regional Planners; Chefs and Head Cooks; Biologists, and Meeting, Convention, and Event Planners.
Note that I’m comparing occupations with each other, not workers within the same occupation. But even if you’re not interested in climbing to a higher-skill occupation, it seems reasonable to conclude that improving your skills can boost you to a higher-paying niche within your current occupation or to a position of greater responsibility where you now work. With Excel, you can manipulate all kinds of quantitative data—not just dollars and cents, but also circulation rates of books (for Librarians), traffic flow within a city (for Urban and Regional Planners), or gallons of olive oil (for Chefs and Head Cooks). And command of data—the ability to summarize, compare, and chart data so it can be used as the basis for decisions—is a skill that employers value. It may not be a superpower, but it opens doors.
[Editor’s Note: Read part two of this article here.]
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