Professional demands of employees in knowledge-intensive occupations

The Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training has published a study of employees in so-called knowledge-intensive jobs. Such workers represent an increasing proportion of the workforce. Employees in these jobs are faced with higher requirements in relation to their professional skills and qualifications. Moreover, their daily tasks have widened considerably and are subject to frequent change.

Survey aims and methodology

The Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (Bundesinstitut für Berufsbildung, BIBB) and the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (Bundesanstalt für Arbeitsschutz und Arbeitsmedizin, BAuA) organise an employee survey on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, BMBF). The survey is conducted by the research institute TNS Infratest Sozialforschung Munich, which carried out telephone interviews from October 2005 to March 2006; the survey covers 20,000 employees who answered on a voluntary basis.

The research aims to provide information on employees and their workplaces. Those surveyed were asked about developments at their workplaces as well as in relation to their working conditions or their job and skills requirements. The survey also examined the link between employees’ educational background and their employment. Questions pertained to changes within the previous two years – between 2004 and 2006. Participants were at least 15 years old and worked for a minimum of 10 hours a week; trainees were excluded from the survey.

Originally, the survey was designed to cover gaps in the official dataset of the Microcensus provided by the Federal Statistical Office (Statistisches Bundesamt Deutschland, Destatis). Each year, the Microcensus samples 1% of the population, amounting to about 390,000 households comprising 830,000 persons. The BIBB survey uses the data from the Microcensus 1996, 2000 and 2004 for cross reference.

The Microcensus data make it possible to take long-term developments into account; for example, the study shows that the number of knowledge-intensive jobs has increased from 1996 to 2004. The interview data, however, complete the picture with detailed information on developments at the workplaces, such as changing job portfolios and different task and skills requirements.

More employees working in knowledge-intensive occupations

In identifying knowledge-intensive occupations, the BIBB study firstly considers professions that require an academic degree, such as engineering. It also takes into account occupations – such as those of senior executives or managers, technicians or master craftspersons – which do not necessarily require an academic degree, but that can be attained by means of a different path, such as vocational education.

As the table shows, the number of employees working in knowledge-intensive occupations increased from 8,052,400 in 1996 to 9,047,000 in 2004. This represents an increase of 12.4% or, in absolute terms, 994,600 persons. Within this period, the following occupations registered the highest increase in the number of employees: information technology (IT) professionals (a 49.7% increase), journalists and creative professionals (29.4%), and managers and consultants (20.8%).

Employees in knowledge-intensive occupations, 1996–2004
The number of IT professionals as well as journalists or employees in creative professions rose steadily.
  1996 2000 2004 Total change %
Knowledge-intensive occupations (total) 8,052,400 8,652,400 9,047,000 994,600 12.4
Research-intensive occupations, such as: 4,165,100 4,619,900 4,817,200 652,100 15.7
- Engineers 931,400 948,600 935,700 4,300 0.5
- Technicians 850,800 894,000 859,000 8,200 1.0
- IT professionals 383,400 532,700 574,100 190,700 49.7
- Researchers 350,300 381,400 418,700 68,400 19.5
- Managers, consultants 1,209,500 1,363,000 1,460,700 251,200 20.8
- Journalists, creative occupations 439,700 500,200 569,000 129,300 29.4
Other knowledge-intensive occupations 3,887,200 4,032,500 4,229,800 342,600 8.8
Other occupations 24,831,300 24,437,600 22,902,200 -1,929,100 -7.8
All occupations 32,883,600 33,090,000 31,949,200 -934,400 -2.8

Source: BIBB, Activities and vocational requirements in knowledge-intensive occupations, 2007

The growing number of employees working in knowledge-intensive occupations reflects the structural change towards a knowledge-based society. However, the study indicates that changes have also been generated at the workplaces in knowledge-intensive occupations, as outlined in the following section.

Change in job requirements

The BIBB study shows that 53.5% of all employees surveyed emphasised that they had to accomplish new tasks more often. This development is especially true for employees in research-intensive jobs. The majority of them, corresponding to 60.7%, stated that the variety of professional tasks that they were required to carry out had broadened since 2004. Task diversification affected, in particular, managers and consultants (63.2%), IT professionals (65.5%), technicians (66.8%) and engineers (57.6%).

Computer software

When asked what kind of changes had led to the transformation of their daily tasks, the respondents pointed most often to the introduction of new computer software as well as internal restructuring processes in their establishments or companies. The BIBB study, furthermore, highlights the fact that task diversification often leads to higher demands in relation to employees’ skills.

Foreign languages

In this regard, job profiles for knowledge-intensive occupations tend to place greater emphasis on multi-disciplinary skills. Employers are looking for employees who, on the one hand, are experts in their occupational fields and who, on the other, have a good command of foreign languages or have other analytical skills. Foreign languages were indicated as a core competency by 40.6% of all employees surveyed who were in a research-intensive profession. Among the professions, IT professionals (59.9%), researchers (51.8%) and engineers (45.8%) were the ones who most often indicated that they needed to master a foreign language, particularly English.

Problem solving

The required analytical skills relate to profound knowledge and capabilities that facilitate solutions to often difficult tasks and problems, for instance, trouble-shooting, decision making, logical reasoning and abstract thinking. These abilities are of particular interest for employees in research-intensive occupations: 67.1% of employees in such occupations underlined that they often had to cope with unexpected problems. Another 72.4% of researchers and 71.5% of managers and consultants indicated that they often had to explain difficult facts and issues that were not readily intelligible to everyone as part of their job.

In short, compared with employees in other professions, those working in knowledge-intensive occupations are frequently faced with rising demands concerning their professional skills. The likelihood of increased professional requirements was five times higher for employees who were faced with task diversification than for other employees. Moreover, skills in their original field of expertise have to be complemented by skills outside their subject area.

Importance of education for young people

Finally, the study underlines the growing importance of a sound vocational or academic education for young people. Since knowledge-intensive jobs account for an ever greater share of all occupations in the labour market, a higher ratio of well-educated young people seems advisable.

Reference and further information

Hall, A., Tätigkeiten und berufliche Anforderungen in wissensintensiven Berufen (228Kb PDF) [Activities and vocational requirements in knowledge-intensive occupations], Bonn, BIBB, Studien zum deutschen Innovationssystem No. 3, Bonn, 2007.

More information at European level is available on Europe’s progress towards a knowledge society.

Sandra Vogel, Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW Köln)

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