Hunting for a common thread amid the hype around skills

This issue of The Job looks at how the Carnegie Foundation and ETS want to measure skills in K-12 and beyond. Also, an analysis of the ‘skillstech’ landscape, competency-based education in Alabama, and new tools on connecting college and careers.

The Tipping Point on Skills?

The glitzy ASU+GSV gathering this week was titled “Brave New World.” But Tim Knowles wanted to talk about 1906.

That was when the organization Knowles leads, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, created the credit-hour standard. The time has arrived, argue Knowles and Amit Sevak, CEO of ETS, to move away from the Carnegie Unit and toward a new currency of education based on meaningful skills and accomplishments, demonstrated through assessment.

The foundation came to a different conclusion in 2015, with a two-year study that essentially punted on the question of whether to replace the credit hour. Knowles says the demand, research, and technology necessary for a transformation of educational assessment has reached a tipping point, much as it did in 1906.

“We think we can validate learning no matter where it happens,” he says. “The Carnegie Unit swept the nation in 10 or 15 years. That’s where we are now.”

Skills were a hot item at the summit in San Diego, particularly tech-enabled tools that seek to measure the knowledge and abilities of learners, and to convey them to employers. These discussions are drawing energy from the campaign led by Opportunity@Work and the Ad Council, which calls for employers to drop four-year degree requirements and to move toward skills-based hiring.

Yet the through line of all the skills-focused work is anything but straight. It’s not always clear how competency-based college programs, learner and employment records, skills-based assessments in K-12, microcredentials, and HR tech tools relate to each other.

Many experts are skeptical about the odds of a skills revolution happening anytime soon. But a general consensus holds that employers will need to be the driving force if real change is in the works.

“There’s a lot of work being done on the award side,” says Naomi Boyer, executive director of digital transformation at Education Design Lab. “The consumption side still needs a lot of work.”

But even skeptics say the stakes are growing due to the labor market, AI and emerging tech tools, and the political urgency around economic mobility and education.

“This whole market is here now,” says one conference attendee. “People feel it.”

The Carnegie Foundation in 1947 helped create ETS, the large nonprofit testing firm that administers the GRE, TOEFL, and other standardized tests. Sevak says the technology has developed rapidly for measuring skills in recent years, as has the outcry to do something different for students.

“It’s this convergence that we’re betting on,” says Sevak. “What’s been on the edges is going to start becoming part of the core.”

Carnegie and ETS say they will jointly design, test, and distribute a new suite of assessments to measure the essential affective, behavioral, and cognitive skills necessary for success in school and the economy. The project will begin in K-12 and expand into higher education and the workforce.

“If we don’t do it, truly competency-based systems are not going to scale,” Knowles says.

Thousand Points of Light: A running debate at the summit was which, if any, of the efforts to measure skills would reach a respectable scale. Some say the best bets are LinkedIn and its massive network of users, or employer-facing HR tools from Workday.

Others, however, say businesses aren’t asking for ways to operationalize skills-based hiring, at least not loudly enough to make it a bottom-line priority for Workday, LinkedIn, and other large companies.

Either way, “the skills infrastructure and architecture isn’t there yet,” says Sean Gallagher, founder and Executive Director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy.

Last month Gallagher was the lead author of a report from the center that found HR tech largely isn’t designed to even accept digital credentials or robust skills data. A new analysis from Gallagher and the center defines the growing “skillstech” landscape and discusses how it is evolving.

When Gallagher and his team began their research and interviews, he thought they would find competing skills taxonomies from influential entities like Lightcast, the World Economic Forum, and Workday. Instead, they found an expanding universe of tech tools that offer solutions to catalog, identify, match, and interpret skills.

“It appears almost certain that adaptable solutions yielding many proprietary taxonomies are the future of skillstech,” the analysis concludes.

Providers in this space include TalentGuard, Fuel50, Gloat, SkillsEngine, and Eightfold.ai, as well as startups like SkyHive, Revelio Labs, TechWolf, AdeptID, and Empath, the analysis says. Beyond Workday and Lightcast, other large companies offering skills tools include SAP, LinkedIn, Oracle, and IBM.

For example, LinkedIn last week made an announcement that caught the attention of experts who work on learner and employment records. The company now allows its users to verify their place of work with a Microsoft Entra Verified ID credential. LinkedIn also has partnered with CLEAR, the secure identity platform, so people can verify their identities on the networking platform. Both new features are free.

“When you show that you’re the real you, you’ll have an even greater chance of finding the professional opportunities that matter to you and your community,” LinkedIn says. Microsoft says the new tools will “make the process of verifying a prospective employee’s identity and qualifications less manual, time-consuming, and expensive.”

Boost for CBE: The growing focus on skills is welcome news for competency-based education. “We’re all advocating for authentic assessments,” says Amber Garrison Duncan, executive vice president of the nonprofit Competency-Based Education Network.

Garrison Duncan agrees that employers are in the driver’s seat. The group has been working with a broad coalition in Alabama, consulting on competency frameworks as part of the Alabama Talent Playbook. She says businesses in the state, ranging from big healthcare companies to small construction firms, are seeking verified credentials with information about an applicant’s skills.

A new brief from the coalition describes why many experts believe Alabama is at the head of the class in its efforts to better connect workforce development and postsecondary education. The state is building an “open talent marketplace” by combining data from its K-12, community college, university and workforce training systems.

“This openness enables seamless access for students, job-seekers, educators, and employers to easily connect and share information across systems that were previously siloed,” according the brief.

Many of the most promising skills-based solutions for hiring have a local focus. They also often have a human factor, argues Garrison Duncan, citing successful competency-based welding programs in Alabama.

The Kicker: “Can we scale without losing what an employer values—a faculty member saying, ‘can you do that?’”

Mapping Career Development

Colleges have heightened their focus on careers in recent years, but many of their efforts remain ancillary—disconnected from both the classroom and employers.

That’s one of the key findings of a new report from Harvard University’s Project on Workforce. “Most colleges and employers remain at arm’s length,” say two of the report’s authors, Joseph Fuller and Kerry McKittrick. “While intermediaries, like Handshake, have helped bridge the gap in recent years, higher education, on the whole, has done little to reform its core activities to bolster students’ employment outcomes.”

To change this, they say, colleges must put economic mobility at the center of their mission and hold faculty and departments accountable.

To help colleges be more systematic in their approach, the project has put together two new resources: a data tool that overlays regional employment and college graduate growth in regions around the country, and a detailed analysis of programs that connect college students to good jobs.

That analysis set out to answer a deceptively simple question: What can we do to launch more college students onto successful career trajectories? To do so, the researchers reviewed over 530 academic papers, articles, reports, book chapters, dissertations, and landscape reviews that address the transition between college and work.

They found that many popular approaches to career development, like last-mile bootcamps, are too new to have proven effective. And many trusted ways to boost careers, like co-ops and apprenticeships, aren’t that widespread because they’re hard to do.

The one exception is internships which have a long track record and are widespread.

A key difference between internships and co-ops or apprenticeships is that internships don’t require deep integration between colleges and companies. Companies can and do run internship programs all on their own—whereas apprenticeships, co-ops, and other forms of work-integrated learning require formal education and on-the-job experiences to be built together.

“These programs involve considerable startup costs and close coordination to ensure they are implemented equitably and effectively,” Fuller and McKittrick say. “Expanding such programs in the U.S. will require educators and employers alike to accept that their current approaches to developing skills and recruiting talent are no longer fit for purpose.”

In general, the authors found that employers are largely left out of career development in college. They recommend that policymakers create incentives for employers to develop work-based learning programs in collaboration with educators.

“Only employers know what specific skills they currently require of workers and the skills they anticipate needing in the future,” Fuller and McKittrick say. — By Elyse Ashburn

Open Tabs

Outcomes Data
The newly-formed GitLab Foundation has awarded its first major grant, of $2.9M, to JFF to help learners and employers make better sense of postsecondary credentials. JFF will partner with the Burning Glass Institute to add measures of racial, gender, and income equity to the Educational Quality Outcomes Standards (EQOS) framework, which JFF acquired last year. The partners also will develop applications that make it easier for learners and employers to use outcomes data.

Gainful Employment
The wage-related thresholds in the Biden administration’s proposed gainful employment rule set a very low bar, Clare McCann, a higher education fellow at Arnold Ventures, said in an article by Katherine Knott of Inside Higher Ed. “There are lots of other pretty low-value programs that will probably be able to pass these tests and keep operating. This is really about the worst of the worst, the lowest value of all the programs in the field.”

Jobs Marketplace
The Navajo Nation plans to build a central marketplace for jobs available both in-person and remotely for its residents. The marketplace, to be developed by the Competency-Based Education Network and Aspire Ability, will publish competency maps for open roles—rather than standard job descriptions—and match jobseekers based on their knowledge, skills, and abilities. The platform also will make personalized recommendations for competency-based education programs at local colleges.

Worker Benefits
The rising cost of benefits is straining both employees and employers, according to a report from Aflac. On worker satisfaction, employers said providing a competitive total package was their No. 1 struggle (47%)—followed closely by challenges with training and development (40%). Three quarters of employers surveyed said their benefits costs went up in the last year.

Clean Energy
Five universities will receive a combined $18.7M through federal spending to expand pathways to clean energy jobs, the Biden Administration announced. The universities, including Georgia Tech and Texas A&M, will house regional centers coordinating government, nonprofits, industry, and labor. The administration also announced a $54M funding opportunity to expand this work to community colleges, trade schools, and union training programs.

If you’re interested in sponsoring The Job to reach nearly 5,000 people who care about the intersection of education and the workforce, check out the sales kit and get in touch.

— Paul Fain

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