Stop Ranking Skills

One of the most influential records in rock-and-roll history is also among the simplest: Louie Louie by the Kingsmen. With the same three-chord progression as Twist and Shout, La Bamba, and Wild Thing, Louie Louie is famous for its youthful energy – see the party scene from Animal House – thousands of cover versions, and lyrics that have withstood human understanding for over 60 years.

Louie Louie was written and initially performed by Richard Berry, a 21-year-old from Los Angeles who released it as the B-side to a rockin’ version of You Are My Sunshine. The single didn’t chart and two years later Berry sold his copyright in the song for a pittance. But it did receive some radio play in Seattle and several local bands incorporated Louie Louie into their live shows. In time, one recorded their version: a song that showed up in jukeboxes in Oregon and was heard by a fledgling group of Portland teenagers who sought to make it their own.

Bizarrely, the Kingsmen’s recording was the second version of Louie Louie recorded in Portland that week. The first, by Paul Revere and the Raiders, was far more professional, and – unlike the Kingsmen – didn’t involve an argument over who would pay for the recording. The Kingsmen’s effort wouldn’t have amounted to anything if Boston DJ Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg hadn’t played the record in his “Worst of the Week” slot. Ginsburg was soon inundated by record shops asking where they could find it and, after a local label picked it up, Louie Louie quickly sold over 20,000 copies in Boston. Before long, the Kingsmen were at #2 on the chart – kept from the top spot by a Belgian singing nun. (Such was the state of the music business in 1963.)

As Louie Louie gained popularity, there were numerous complaints to the FBI. Because no one could decipher the words, patriots were concerned that teens were responding to a message that was either sexual or communist, and probably both. According to the podcast A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI spent two years investigating Louie Louie:

On the FBI website, you can read 119 pages of memos from FBI agents (with various bits blacked out for security reasons), and read about them shipping copies of “Louie Louie” to labs (under special seal, in case they’d be violating laws about transferring obscene material across state lines and breaking the very law they were investigating), listening to the record at 33, 45, and 78 RPM and trying to see if they could make out the lyrics, comparing them to the published words, to the various samizdat versions being shared by kids, and to Berry’s record, and destroying the records after listening.

The FBI’s investigation of Louie Louie was the byproduct of a febrile imagination shared by many at the time. But it’s also hilarious for two reasons. First, at no point did the FBI pick up on the actual expletive in the song at the 56-second mark, when the drummer makes a mistake and yells an obscenity. Second, the FBI failed to uncover that the impenetrable lyrics were completely unintentional. The night before the recording, the Kingsmen had done a show and the lead singer’s voice was shot. In the studio, his microphone was positioned too high, causing further throat strain. Finally, as the teen had recently received braces, he sang-slurred as best he could.

Sometimes the authorities are just wrong. That’s the feeling I get from the recent parade of authoritative reports on America’s skills gap, and specifically ranking the skills in greatest demand. The first culprit is Wiley’s 2023 whitepaper titled Closing The Skills Gap which concluded that the most in-demand skills are:

  1. Strategic thinking and analytics
  2. Problem solving
  3. Digital communication
  4. Project management
  5. Time management
  6. Ability to adapt to change
  7. Leadership

Similarly, LinkedIn lists 2023’s Most In-Demand Skills as:

  1. Management
  2. Communication
  3. Customer service
  4. Leadership
  5. Sales
  6. Project management
  7. Research
  8. Analytical skills
  9. Marketing
  10. Teamwork

Finally, Education Design Lab’s list of 21st Century Skills is:

  1. Self-directed learning
  2. Empathy
  3. Oral communication
  4. Critical thinking
  5. Resilience
  6. Intercultural fluency
  7. Collaboration
  8. Creative problem solving
  9. Initiative

There’s no question that all the above are highly desirable and characteristic of superior employees, including entry-level hires. But these lists are unchanged from similar efforts five years ago and demonstrate little progression over a 10- or even 20-year period. If the authorities are to be believed, digital transformation of the economy and jobs hasn’t had any effect on the skills employers are seeking, or gaps in the labor market.

What’s going on here? Think of the hiring process as a funnel divided into three parts:

1. Top of funnel. Hundreds – sometimes thousands – of résumés pour into the top of the funnel for every online job posting. HR and hiring managers can’t possibly review every applicant. Instead, they utilize Applicant Tracking System software like Taleo, Greenhouse, or Kenexa, matching keywords in the job description to keywords parsed from the résumé. Top matches make it through to humans. Everyone else is digital detritus.

2. Mid-funnel. HR and hiring managers review matched résumés to determine which candidates merit interview and assessment time.

3. Bottom of funnel. Interviews and assessments, hopefully yielding job offers.

The problem is that these rankings of in-demand skills are based on surveys of HR and hiring managers. They’re asking people who see candidates mid-funnel. And which candidates are they seeing? Only those who already check all the top-of-funnel boxes which, as I’ve pointed out, are increasingly technical and digital, particularly for good entry-level jobs. Then, like the confused FBI, they bemoan a deficit of other capabilities. Wiley, LinkedIn, and other supposed skill rankers would be better off sending surveys to top-of-funnel keyword-matching algorithms.


It would be a lot simpler if there were only as many in-demand digital skills as chords in Louie Louie. But as digital transformation has washed across each industry, organization, and job function, there are more in-demand digital skills than Louie Louie covers. Digital transformation has yielded thousands of platforms to implement, configure, integrate, or just operate. As manual and paper processes have been digitized (and increasingly automated), there are platforms for sales (Salesforce), HR (Workday), supply chain (Blue Yonder), finance (NetSuite), sales and marketing (Hubspot), customer service (Zendesk), software development (Atlassian), low-code app development (Pega), cloud computing (AWS), data warehouse (Snowflake), and digital transformation itself (ServiceNow). Moreover, each industry has its own platforms like finance (Bloomberg), hospitals (Epic), insurance agents (Applied Epic), home care (WellSky), construction (Procore), pharma (Veeva), legal (Clio), lease administration (Lucernex), sports (Thapos). For the restaurant industry – one that wouldn’t seem to be top of anyone’s digitization list – someone put together a list of 100 “amazing” SaaS platforms restaurant owners should know to manage functions like accounting, bar inventory, employee training, ordering, payroll, reservations, scheduling, and even tip reporting. (Note: if you’re considering opening a restaurant, this list could be the money-saving prophylactic you need.)

These are the top-of-funnel skills American companies can’t find, at least not without poaching – an activity that is only economically productive for the person being poached. But because demand is dispersed across the entire economy, few rise to the top of any skills ranking. The recent Lightcast analysis of job postings crowning Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Office as the most in-demand digital skills is proof that ranking skills makes about as much sense as ranking colleges, right Columbia?

Like problem solving, collaboration, and time management, Excel and Office are table stakes for career launch: necessary and hopefully far along by high school graduation, but increasingly insufficient. Last year Dell surveyed 15,000 recent graduates and found 37% saying their education didn’t give them the digital skills they needed. (56% reported their digital skills education was very basic or zilch.) Last week, Multiverse surveyed 1,200 business leaders and determined 67% believe colleges and universities aren’t producing graduates with the skills companies need. (What’s missing? “Technical/practical skills related to their field.”) And while generative AI is likely to shrink the digital skills gap, it will widen the experience gap, transforming career launch into a “how do I get experience if I don’t already have experience?” Möbius strip for millions of young Americans.


In 1963, the Kingsmen would have benefited from lists ranking communication skills highly. Sixty years later, such rankings are skills gap misdirection. By implying these skills are the sum total of what’s required for career launch (or even just the key to career launch), they may be extending the shelf life of expensive, generic college degrees – the only plausible training ground for this broad and unspecific skill set – long past their sell-by date. Meanwhile, the few teens and 20-somethings who have managed to gain valuable digital skills are unlikely to have done so in class. Most in-demand digital skills are learned on the job not only because schools don’t teach them, but because they’re much harder to learn in a classroom than on the job since they involve applying industry, business, or job function knowledge.

Like Louie Louie, skill rankings are unclear at best, and perhaps harming young Americans. Like the Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg of education and workforce I aspire to be, I’m going on record and calling skill rankings “Worst of the Week.” Let’s hope the FBI investigates.