Reporting on the connections between education and work

A new way to measure durable skills

America Succeeds has joined up with CompTIA to create a new assessment for skills like critical thinking and communication. We talked to Tim Taylor, the nonprofit’s president, about how this new tool can help make skills-based hiring a reality.

Campaigns to boost skills-based hiring—such as OneTen’s hiring pledge and Opportunity@Work’s nationwide PSA’s—have drummed up a lot of attention. Five states and many big employers have promised to look beyond four-year degrees as they screen job candidates. But can they make good on those promises?

One of the biggest barriers is how to determine the abilities of jobseekers, particularly their non-technical skills. America Succeeds, a Colorado-based nonprofit that straddles business and education policy, is working on a solution it thinks can go a long way toward making skills-based hiring a reality.

The group has partnered with CompTIA and the Common Group to develop a common lexicon for “durable” skills—critical thinking, communication, collaboration, leadership, and so on. The project includes a focus on employer needs, and builds on an analysis Lightcast and America Succeeds conducted on 80M U.S. jobs postings.

Work Shift spoke this week with Tim Taylor, co-founder and president of America Succeeds, about the goals of this work and what comes next, which includes a plan to develop assessment tools with CompTIA that companies and states could use to rely less on four-year degrees in hiring.

A lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation follows, below:

What sort of scale are you hoping this project can reach? Who is it seeking to help?
Tim Taylor

A: This started with the hypothesis that durable skills—skills that last a lifetime that somebody takes with them from job to job—were required in every industry, in every geography, and regardless of education attainment. And as technical skills evolve at a super fast rate, and folks are trying to upskill and reskill in those technical skills, durable skills are so critical for getting into the workforce, for helping people gain economic mobility, for opening the workforce to those who have been left out in the past.

And what we found in our research, when we studied 80M job descriptions with Lightcast, was that seven of the top-10 most in-demand skills are actually these durable skills. The durable skills show up in job descriptions almost five times more often than the top five technical skills. Of course, the technical skills are spread out across a bunch of industries. 

Our hypothesis was proven correct that these durable skills are universal. We often refer to them as the second rung on the career ladder. If you don’t have these skills, you’re very likely to lose your job early on. Once you’ve been unable to access and climb that ladder, because that second rung is missing, it often hampers an entire career. Our research ultimately pointed out that as we look at jobs of the future, the ones that are not going to be replaced by AI—mid- to high-skill, mid- to high-wage jobs—require more of these durable skills. Low-skill, low-wage jobs require fewer of these skills. They’re the easiest to get automated, when you don’t have that human component.

Your focus on the ‘second rung’ of a career connects to efforts to help people without a four-year degree to not only to get a job, but to succeed in it. Can you share more about that?

A: Yeah. There’s a desire to move to skill-based hiring, in part because the job market is tight. You have a declining college-going rate. Our population is declining and we’re becoming older. We’re looking for ways to assess talent. We’re trying to figure out who has which skills. And the technical skills are pretty easy to validate. There’s still a lot of confusion in the market about what’s a good certification versus a bad certification. But there’s been this explosion of opportunity around certificates and microcredentials that you could bring to an employer. 

The hard part is the other side of the coin I just mentioned—the most in-demand skills or durable skills. And the four-year degree is still the proxy that employers use to say whether or not you have those skills. And it’s really because of some persistence and just knowing that over the course of four years, you’ve had to demonstrate a number of these skills. It’s a fairly decent proxy, but the problem is it can’t be the only proxy if we are going to use the skill-based hiring model.

Tell me about your work with CompTIA?

A: We sort of found each other. As CompTIA is certifying technical skills, the employers they service—their largest customer is the Department of Defense—have been saying, “Times are changing. We don’t put the folks who can code in a basement anymore. They are interacting with customers. They are working in teams. Is there any way you can validate some of these other skills in addition to technical skills?” Because CompTIA has heard this demand so often, they were paying attention when we started talking about the research around durable skills, and we entered into a partnership.

The first step was to create a rubric—there has to be a common lexicon among employers of what they mean by critical thinking, collaboration, and metacognition. And what we expect somebody to be able to know or do. We had to pick a point in time because these skills are mastered over a lifetime. You’re never done learning them. So we zeroed in on that first or second job, and designed a rubric that shows if you know or can do these things, you’re in a pretty good spot.

If you know and can demonstrate these things in that first or second job, then you can really get to the third rung on the career ladder. Companies like Amazon, Discover Card, Johnson & Johnson, and Leidos all participated in developing the rubric. We’re getting ready to take that rubric out on the road, meeting with chambers of commerce and business organizations around the country. CompTIA has an online survey for anybody who wants to provide some feedback. We want to make sure we got this right.

Another critical component is how important we believe this is to increasing diversity and equity in the workforce. If this turns out to be a barrier to entry and a way to screen again, we’ve done it poorly. We’re working with Common Group, a human-centered design equity firm, and  we’re trying to make sure that we’re building equity into this. That we’re not unintentionally ruling somebody out because we didn’t think about code switching, diverse backgrounds, or the way that different people approach these skills. 

At the same time, it’s demand driven. This is what employers are asking for. We hear about skill development frameworks that have been designed for the classroom, and unfortunately, they miss a lot of what our employers are asking for. We feel like we’ve greased the skids of that school-to-work pipeline.

How could this rubric be used at scale?

A: Six states have now moved to skill-based hiring. There’s a real opportunity to get more people engaged in the workforce and for people to be able to demonstrate in-demand skills. We’re super interested in returning veterans to the workforce. Veterans often can’t re-enter civilian life with meaningful work. Yet they have durable skills they’ve developed in the military—and they could demonstrate those skills to somebody who was using skill-based hiring.

We talked with the head of HR for FedEx Ground, who described to us that, prior to the pandemic, they would put out job descriptions for all different kinds of positions. And they’d get a stack of resumes, six to eight inches tall, and they would have to narrow that stack of resumes down to something that was manageable. And so they used a four-year degree as the proxy because they could get a tall stack of resumes down to a manageable size. And they were hiring 10K people a month around the holidays. 

Because of the labor market tightening, now when they put those same jobs out, they’re getting a stack of resumes only an inch or two tall. And he just said outright that they can’t afford to disregard the ones that don’t have a four-year degree.

But it’s very difficult to sort through meaningful skills. And the part that is almost non-existent—which is why we’re doing the work we’re doing—is how he could assess durable skills which are important to every single job they have at FedEx. Companies are experiencing this. States are experiencing this. And the time really is now to do this work. We wish we’d started earlier.

Can you give me a sense of how you’re developing assessments for durable skills?

A: We brought subject matter experts together to design the initial rubric, and we involved a number of young people from diverse backgrounds in the design. And often, when the employers said, “We think somebody should be able to know this or do this,” we would check with this group of young people who were in their first job and say, “Is this reasonable to expect of somebody?” That impressive group of young people wound up saying every single time, “Not only that, but probably a little bit more—I’m expected to do all of these things.”

Now we’re taking the rubric on the road to ask folks for input—this is an open process. Let’s make sure we do have the common lexicon. Let’s make sure that these skills that we’re asking somebody to know or do are accurate. Once that work is done, CompTIA is going to move forward on developing an assessment—and we hope that in about 12 months we’ll have something that we can take to market. We can begin to pilot. We can start to test. 

While we’re referring to this as an assessment, we think of it very much as a way for somebody to find out what they’re good at, and maybe what they’re not so good at, and to lead with the things they’re good at. We want people to understand that, “My critical thinking and my collaboration skills are great. My leadership skills need a little bit of work. But when I write my skills-based resume, I’m going with the things that I’m good at and have been validated by some type of CompTIA assessment.” That’s the direction we’re headed. 

We’ve also been approached by higher ed and K-12, innovative practitioners in those spaces, who have asked how soon they can get their hands on that rubric. We want to start creating some prompts, some ways that this can go into the classroom. A math teacher said to us, “When I’m giving out math problems, I could have the kids get into groups of three and work together to solve problems in more than one way. They’re actually trying to find different solutions to a math problem. And then I want them to be able to present the different ways they solve those problems back to the class.” 

So the math class is practicing collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, communication skills, all while they’re still getting the curriculum. That hasn’t changed a bit—it’s just a different way of instruction. It’s a different way to get the kids to practice these skills, to hear these terms, to know that they’re gaining skills in these areas—and then to be able to take that into the workforce.

How can people get involved?

A: We are eager to find partners and others to participate in this work. There’s an awful lot to do and not a lot of time to do it. We are exploring pilot projects with education providers in schools. We are interested in working with teachers to help us develop prompts so that there’s more of these examples that we can sprinkle in. And they go across every subject. 

We’re talking to higher ed, particularly community colleges, which are interested in being able to demonstrate that students are getting both the technical skills and some of these durable skills that they can take immediately into the workforce. On the employer side, we really need to understand how employers are approaching skill-based hiring. Where are the pain points? What is working? What is not working for those folks? We’ve talked to a number of great employers about this, but there’s always more to learn.

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