Beyond Projects: Building a Skills-based System

For many employers, it is difficult to determine what a potential employee is truly qualified for if they hold a high school diploma, or even a two-or four-year college degree. With 70 percent of community college students--and more generally, half of all undergraduates--needing to take at least one remedial course, it is no guarantee that a high school graduate is prepared for credit-bearing courses in college. Even with a four-year degree it is questionable whether a student is ready to enter their chosen career field. Let's dig deeper and look at grade point averages or individual grades; it isn't any easier to ascertain what knowledge or skills an individual has. For instance, if you received a "B" grade in a college-level math course, what does that tell me about what you know or have mastered?

As a result of this lack of transparency in the traditional credentialing system, there have been several efforts to change the conversation by focusing on the recognition of skills. However, several requirements need to be in place for a scalable skills-based system to be successful, including the adoption of a common standards-based language for describing skills, the development of new public-private partnerships and the exchange of data that can support competency-based credentialing.

One response to the skills gap is that employers are focusing more than ever on industry credentialing as a means of identifying specific skill sets. For example, manufacturing is an industry that is impacted heavily by skills shortages brought on by the need for more replacement workers as many retire. There are as many as 600,000 manufacturing jobs going unfilled today. In response, the Manufacturing Institute has promoted a sequence of industry-recommended stackable credentials in an effort to create more transparency and trust around what skills an individual has when they apply for a job.

Another approach has been to foster competency-based learning in our schools. There is a growing debate across the country about how to translate courses, such as math and science, into competencies and skills. Many states are currently experimenting with this type of disruptive innovation, leading to different models for what a skills-based future might look like. New Hampshire is moving its K-12 system to a competency-based approach where students can learn anytime, anywhere, creating multiple pathways to graduation. Mayor Richard J. Berry of Albuquerque, New Mexico, has taken a more career-minded approach and launched Talent Albuquerque, an effort to work with employers and educators to assess and match specific skills with job qualifications. Even the digital badge movement has sought to provide a new form of micro-credentialing.

While the recent focus on industry credentials can be delivered in conjunction with the existing education system, the move towards competency-based learning represents a paradigm shift in how we deliver education and certify skills. Thus far, efforts have focused in large part on demonstration projects. A few requirements will need to be met in order to scale these efforts and for a system to emerge that is both trustworthy and responsive to employer needs.

The first is a standards-based language for describing skills. For any system to have trust it must have a set of agreed-upon definitions that are interchangeable across delivery systems and can be assessed and audited. Similar in concept to how institutions manage credit transfers today, a set of descriptions needs to be in place that allows individuals to acquire widely-recognized skills that can be assessed and trusted by all parties involved, including employers.

Second, if the skills standards are going to be adopted and recognized this will require public-private partnerships. If employers want to advance a skills-based system, they must define their occupations and career pathways by skill levels and not strictly by credentials. Education providers will need to have in place an enabling policy environment that allows them to organize the educational experience to focus on skills as well as new business models that allow them to operate effectively.

Lastly, by moving to a skills-based system, learning can occur anytime, anywhere, therefore requiring a more open data infrastructure. Whether in a school classroom, through an after-school club, or through work experience, the potential to develop skills exists. The key will be finding the appropriate standards-aligned assessments to measure an individual's skills and certify them. What this requires is a data infrastructure that allows individuals to manage their skill attainment and share that information among their network.

Fully addressing the skills gap has led to a diversity of innovative ideas and models, including several promising case studies. However, if we are to move from demonstration projects to a true skills-based system, then it will require a paradigm shift in how we deliver education and workforce training.

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This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the "Close It" Summit, in conjunction with the upcoming "Close It" Summit (Nov. 5-7, 2013, in Washington, D.C.). The summit will address the U.S. job-market skills gap. For more information on the conference, please visit