Reporting on the connections between education and work

A new take on certifying ‘soft’ skills—first for veterans, then everyone

A new initiative run by Education Design Lab hopes to crack the code on how to certify high-demand soft skills in a way that is both efficient and credible to employers.
U.S. Marines and Sailors deploy from Camp Pendleton to establish a vaccination center in Arlington, Texas. (Joel Rivera-Camacho/Unsplash)

Just about every American worker has learned things on the job that aren’t readily captured by a job description or a line in a resume. That’s especially true for members of the U.S. military—more than 200,000 of whom leave the service each year. It’s a notoriously difficult transition—in part because military jobs don’t easily translate to civilian roles.

Now, the new XCredit Initiative, run by Education Design Lab, is testing new approaches to assessing and certifying the skills of transitioning service members. The initiative is squarely focused on the “soft” or “human” skills, like communication and problem solving, that are in high demand by employers but often difficult to define.

The goal is to provide these individuals with economic mobility. But coming right alongside that, we are also serving employers,” said Tara Laughlin, education designer and micro-credentialing project manager at Education Design Lab. “Employers are having a hard time finding talent that has the skills they need, and that’s not because those skills aren’t out there, but because they can’t identify those skills.”

The big idea: The project is hoping to crack the code on how to certify high-demand soft skills in a way that is both efficient and credible to employers. The lab will be designing automated assessments and field testing prototypes with both individuals and employers over the coming months, with larger pilots to come in the next year.

The initiative plans to eventually serve a wide range of adults, but is starting with transitioning military members. For one, that population is large and diverse—and hiring veterans is a priority for many employers. Veterans collectively face a lot of “lost” learning—with many skills and experiences from military service getting lost in translation to civilian work.

  • And 47 percent of veterans believe they should be in a better job than their current one given their skills.

The plan: XCredit aims to address aspects of this disconnect by designing, piloting, and scaling certifications for informal learning over the next three years. A number of organizations, including SOLID, which is partnering with the lab, already translate formal military training and technical skills into the language of the private sector. The new initiative will fill in the gaps with a focus on soft skills developed on the job but not captured by formal military certifications.

“These skills are sometimes hidden from employers, but they’re often hidden from the individual themselves,” Laughlin said. “Part of what we’re trying to do is help the individual understand they have these skills as well.”

Designing for scale

To start, XCredit will focus on three distinct competencies, oral communication, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving. The assessment approach will be two-pronged:

  • The first approach is experiential assessments, in both AI chat-based and immersive environments, that allow individuals to demonstrate the skills they’ve gained. One chat-based experience, for example, will put individuals in the role of a produce manager at a grocery store who is being asked to recommend whether the store should add a smoothie bar. Participants will be given flyers, websites, data on pilots in other cities, and access to a sales rep—all with the goal of measuring how they gather and assess relevant information, a core part of critical thinking.
  • The second approach is skill artifacts that act as evidence of skills. That measure is less developed, but Laughlin said the lab is considering things like whether a 4.9 or 5.0 Uber score is a proxy for customer service, and by extension communication skills. Or whether a waitress’s average tip percentage serves as a similar proxy. And assessment designers are actively looking at what analogs in the military might be.

Once skills are assessed, they’ll be certified with digital badges issued by Credly. And they’re designed to seamlessly integrate with MyHub, the National Student Clearinghouse’s new learning “wallet,” which allows learners to store formal transcripts, digital badges, and other records of learning all in one place.

For now, the focus is on certifying skills for the purposes of hiring and advancement, but Laughlin said the initiative is exploring ways the badges might translate to college credit in year two of the project. “We’re having conversations with different potential universities,” she said.

Run by robots: Once XCredit is up and running, the whole process is designed to be automated and certified. That, Laughlin says, is key to reaching military members and eventually other adults at a large scale. Organizations like RAND, for example, have already mapped a number of military roles to soft skills that are critical in the workplace. But the onus is on service members to dig into the skills map and then explain in interviews how their experience developed those skills—a process that can be hit or miss.

“As opposed to showing up at an interview and having to speak off-the-cuff to XYZ experience and how it cultivated this skill—you’ll be coming in with a credential,” Laughlin said.

Even when dealing with formal assessments, the existing ways to certify soft skills are often time-consuming and far from seamless. Portfolios have to be reviewed by experts, in-person simulations have to be observed and scored, assessments have to be proctored. Using AI and other advanced technologies gets around that. “One of the challenges that we’re trying to solve is that this has been a very manual process and that’s true of assessments, not just portfolios,” Laughlin said. 

Hard road ahead  

Why it’s one to watch: This is just early days for the XCredit Initiative. But it has backing from the Walmart Foundation, and the team has a track record in the badging world. Becky Klein-Collins, vice president for impact at CAEL and a leading expert on prior learning assessment, said this kind of soft skills assessment is in the Education Design Lab’s sweet spot. 

Gut check: Still, that doesn’t mean the work will be easy. Assessing soft skills is challenging enough, Klein-Collins said, but ensuring the tests and credentials have credibility with employers is another level. “The big question is how do you translate the skills and competencies from a military context to something that is understandable from a civilian workforce context,” she said.

Even initiatives like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Jobs Data Exchange that are considered models for standardizing job requirements have had a hard time getting employers on the same page about what matters and for which roles.

For its part, the lab is working with employers of various sizes and in a range of industries as it designs the assessments and credentials. Laughlin estimates that process will involve about 30 employers, and the lab will also lean on SOLID’s expertise in working with companies. But the project leads will ultimately be testing its designs with a small slice of the civilian sector. The focus then has to be on universal principles, like accuracy, reliability, and ease of use, Laughlin said.

Those things would be important to potential university partners as well—but mapping to college credit presents its own challenges. As Klein-Collins’ research has shown, it’s all too easy to issue credit that doesn’t really count for anything.

  • In a recent study of the impact of prior learning assessment among more than 232,000 adult learners, she and other researchers found that service members and veterans were far more likely than others (43 vs. 3 percent) to receive credit for existing knowledge and skills.
  • However, service members with prior-learning credit didn’t see as much of a boost to their completion rates as did other students with such credit.

The researchers weren’t able to ascertain why, but hypothesized that one reason might be that many of the credits for military training didn’t ultimately count toward the students’ graduation requirements.

And skills assessments, rather than credit recommendations for formal training, present another layer of complexity. “Some of these may not map very neatly to a specific course—there may be components of it that map to a course, but most courses aren’t oriented around the articulation and assessment of particular soft skills,” Klein-Collins said. Competency-based programs, or at least those that have built discrete skills into their curriculum, would be the best fit.

The last word: The XCredit Initiative is expected to scale up over the next three years, with a pilot phase in year two. That will provide more of a signal about where the work is headed, and its potential scope—but Laughlin said the team would like the assessments to eventually be widely available to both veterans and other adults. “We haven’t named any numbers,” she said, “but we are thinking big.”

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