What’s in your (skills) wallet?

Skills look to be the currency of the future. Creating wallets to hold them will mean breaking down a “labyrinth of silos,” writes Naomi Boyer of Education Design Lab.

As a growing number of companies, states, and other employers move to drop degree requirements, a common refrain has emerged: “Skills are the currency of the future.” Mounting evidence suggests this prediction will prove correct. Three quarters of employers now say they believe a degree is no longer a reliable way of assessing the quality of a job candidate. More than 80% say organizations should consider a candidate’s skills rather than degree attainment when hiring. Nearly 70% of employers believe they should proactively hire candidates from nondegree pathways.

Naomi Boyer, SVP of digital transformation at Education Design Lab

Learners have never had more options for pursuing these alternate routes for postsecondary learning. Nearly 60,000 providers now offer more than one million credentials. Additionally, individuals are gaining valuable skills through high school, work, and military experience.

But, as with any currency, the skills a worker accumulates throughout their life will need to be kept in a wallet, where they can be both securely held and easily accessed. Efforts are now underway to construct digital billfolds for collecting and organizing the wide range of credentials, certifications, and other indicators of skill-based learning that workers need to carry with them over their careers. 

It’s easier said than done, however. Creating skills wallets that are commonly understood, recognized, and accepted is an immense undertaking—one both technical and bureaucratic in nature. Collaboration is key to overcoming the many barriers associated with adopting digital, verifiable credentials and building the skills-based economy of the future. 

Digital learner education records and skills wallets must serve as a way of validating an array of disparate skills signifiers while also storing them so they can be seamlessly accessed and shared. This means creating a shared vocabulary that can provide the backbone of an interoperable ecosystem that accounts for all skills and competencies, no matter where they might originate. 

Unfortunately, our current system rests upon a labyrinth of silos. High school transcripts and college degrees sit uncomfortably alongside digital badges, industry certifications, and short-term credentials. An effective digital skills wallet should bring them all under one roof. 

Instead of requesting an individual transcript from an institution or adding a badge to their LinkedIn profile, learners and workers could have quick access to a lifetime of learning and be able to convey their skills to employers and learning providers. Likewise, employers could be able to determine a job candidate’s basic skills, knowledge, and experience with little more than a glance. The success of a skills-based ecosystem hinges on creating ways of conveying this information in a fashion as easily understood as the traditional college degree—if not more so. 

Last year, North Dakota launched Open Credential Publisher, an application that allows the state’s residents to have all their high school transcripts, degrees, certifications, badges, and skills housed in one accessible and secure location, where they are recognized as verifiable credentials. The wallet is now live and available across the state. Its platform is built on open digital credential formats like the Comprehensive Learner Record Standard and Open Badges.

The state’s workforce boards also have worked to incorporate Education Design Lab’s XCredit, a digital credential that allows learners and workers to showcase 21st-century skills they have gained through informal learning. 

The success of this initiative relied not only on technological connections but human ones. Creating a digital wallet that institutions and employers are willing to recognize and engage with requires buy-in from a large number of varied stakeholders.

It requires conversation and collaboration between the state, workforce boards, companies, colleges and universities, and other learning providers, as well as the organizations providing both technological and financial support. It requires hard work and tough conversations. Barriers must be broken down, misconceptions must be cleared up, and dots must be connected. 

In North Dakota’s case, this resulted in the creation of the North Dakota Credential Co-Lab. Over the last four years, this Co-Lab has brought together a variety of stakeholders, from representatives of the state’s Department of Commerce and community college systems to technology providers and nonprofit organizations.

The Co-Lab’s participants have worked to address challenges around semantics and technology, creating a coalition of champions who understand the importance—and difficulties—of developing the tools required to build a true skills-based ecosystem. Together, they have created a research and development roadmap that’s moving the state forward.

As the United States continues to embrace a skills-based economy, advances in technology and interest from employees and employers will only get us part way there. It’s through collaboration, conversation, and cooperation that we can make our skills-based future a reality.

Naomi Boyer is senior vice president of digital transformation at Education Design Lab.

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