Developing Skills That Lead to Jobs: Designing the New Normal with a Four-Point Plan

As 2020 has brought a pandemic, an acceleration into the future of work and a recession, higher education needs somewhat of a reform to accommodate today’s diverse learner population.

Let’s play a game of Jeopardy. The category is Learn-and-Work Ecosystem for $200. The answer: pandemic, future of work, and recession. The winning question: What is the perfect storm of 2020?

Unfortunately, this is not a game. We’re in the middle of a perfect storm: the largest pandemic of our lives; a major acceleration of the future of work; and the biggest recession in decades. Employers, policymakers and credential providers must work together to design the “new normal” in our economic recovery. Whatever normal was, is no longer.

We must build better programs that accelerate the development of skills that lead people to jobs. Fortunately, technology is on our side. We can leverage the power and promise of technology, like AI, virtual reality, cloud storage systems, and interoperable data systems to transform our approach. How to apply the power of tech−ethically and fairly−is one of our greatest challenges. We have not done well by everyone in the past. We must also transform and rethink our processes, from the way we educate to the way we hire.

We propose a four-point plan to meet the challenge:

1. Create interoperable, transparent credentials.

Let’s build an understandable, transparent credentialing system. Our more than 730,000 credentials  (degrees, licenses, certificates, industry certifications, badges) must be understandable, trusted, transferable, and interoperable. We can and must use technology to fully implement open-linked data systems for all credentials.

The field of interoperability (transfer between work and education) is still early in development. Northeastern University proved this can work when it articulated digital badges issued by IBM for college credit. To automate–and thus scale–this articulation, we must improve the completeness and quality of data inside credentials. We need a better common language to describe, value, and translate credentials so they can transfer more smoothly. In higher education, English 101 is an easy course to transfer; cybersecurity badges issued by companies will require similar ease.

The good news is, Credential Engine’s Credential Transparency Description Language provides such a language. IBM is beginning to explore the CTDL for employer-awarded credentials to determine whether industry credentials can use the same language that colleges and universities use when they publish their credentials to Credential Engine’s open-linked data systems. It would be a major breakthrough if industry-awarded credentials shared a common language that clearly identified transparent and validated learning, thus allowing learners to move seamlessly between education providers and employers.

2. Colleges: Break the degree into microcredentials

Educational institutions can rightfully take on the role of the nation’s employment and talent-development agency, under the watchwords: Get a job, keep a job, get a better job. Students should be hired while in college. In today’s labor market, it no longer makes sense to wait four to six years to receive a paper diploma which will be outdated soon after graduation. Instead, break the college degree into microcredentials to help students pay for tuition, enter the workforce more quickly, and create close alignment between education and work. Colleges and universities must rethink all of their programs to ensure they are developing job-ready, employable skills. By the end of the student’s first year, institutions should recognize learning by awarding a certificate aligned to labor market demand; after two years, issue an associate degree. In other words, credential as you go; develop a nationally recognized incremental higher education credentialing system that addresses the needs of today’s lifelong learners.

3. Develop alternatives to the college degree

Accelerate alternative pathways into the labor market. All students should have the opportunity to get one more year of education after high school; e.g., earning an associate degree through dual-enrollment programs or a market-accepted certificate through programs such as P-TECH. Research shows that taking college courses in high school benefits Black, Latino, and white students, and its positive effects on college degree attainment are even stronger for low-income students. Let’s go bigger and create more of these pathways.

IBM is prototyping efforts in this regard. In addition to programs such as P-TECH, the New-Collar Certificate Program recognizes that certain positions in some of tech’s faster growing fields (cybersecurity, cloud computing, cognitive business, and digital design) don’t require a traditional degree. In fact, about 40% of IBM’s U.S. open positions don’t require a four-year degree. But they do require the right mix of in-demand skills. To determine whether people have the skill sets for a particular career, IBM is using technology, like career-fit assessments. The company has already conducted 160,000 assessments as part of its program.

4. Remove the bias and artificial barriers in hiring

We must break down the bias in hiring. Many companies are trying to build a diverse and inclusive workforce. They’re talking about it, but what are they doing? Here are five actions that would decrease bias and increase diversity and fairness:

  • Remove bias from job descriptions to make them fairer and more accessible to all applicants.
  • Remove bias from the hiring process by dropping the resumé, which has so many inherent biases, including age, gender and a preference for elite educational institutions.
  • In place of resumés, provide pre-hire assessments to determine whether candidates are eligible for the job.
  • Establish a structured interview process using unbiased questions that can be reviewed by multiple reviewers.
  • Eliminate the college degree requirement wherever possible; focus on skills not golden pedigrees.

Learning and career readiness must be scientifically validated through assessment. Many assessment tools are inadequate and biased. We must reduce the bias and insist on rigor in assessing knowledge with our credentials.

Some will shudder at the thought of adding this new layer of independent assessment, fearing it will shut more people out of employment. Others believe this will uncover hidden talents and democratize the labor market. This is the challenge of the new normal. How do we recognize the growing importance of skills and the array of credentials preparing learners for pathways to our rapidly changing workforce? And how will applicant-tracking systems and other hiring technologies accommodate this new diversity in recognizing qualifications?

Overcoming the biggest hurdle: skepticism, risk-aversion, and concerns about quality

Many institutions and organizations are already following this four-point plan. For example, IBM Digital Badges have been reinventing the ways in which credentials are used to recognize achievement and contribution.

But many are skeptical of these strategies, questioning their value and their transferability. Are employers accepting digital credentials when candidates include them on resumés? IBM and many other employers now recognize short-term credentials, such as badges and Coursera certificates. With more employers focusing on skills rather than degrees, the acceptance of short-term credentials has been a game changer in credentialing and hiring.

IBM has been conducting research on the value of badges for its employees, working from a main research question: Do workers who earn badges do better on the job than those without them? The research has shown that engagement among employees who have earned badges is two points higher than for those who have not; technical sellers with certificates are more likely to make their revenue targets; and employees with skills-level badges are less likely to voluntarily leave the company.

What about quality? This is the question spurring growing interest in transparency − we must know what learning stands behind all our credentials. The stakes are high. Employers cannot hire learners without understanding what their credentials stand for. And employers like IBM, which award their own credentials (IBM has awarded millions of badges in the last few years in areas including Analytics, Cloud, Security, Systems, and AI, along with other essential skills) face the challenge of portability for their workers. Will IBM credentials transfer elsewhere so that workers can move to colleges and universities to seek further education and future career opportunities? Without transfer, we’ve built dead ends for learners and workers, not pathways.

The path forward: It’s bright if we are bold

We believe the future of labor force development will be in assessment, credentialing, and diversity.

All these tactics are aligned with an overarching strategy: to help career starters and career changers get a job, keep a job, and get a better job. Our new normal will require a well-connected learn-and-work ecosystem that can bring alumni back to school for continued education throughout their careers.

Even before this perfect storm of pandemic/future of work/recession, there was growing recognition that college was being redefined, not as a four- to six-year period after high school, but as a lifelong process of gaining competencies and skills. This must be the new normal, the lifelong pathway for all of us.

Let’s not play Jeopardy with our learn-and-work ecosystem. Let’s embrace the new normal. What if higher education institutions were truly the designated talent-development agency for the nation, committed to serving the needs of all learners and workers fairly and equitably? What if employers who award credentials joined the talent-development agency as customers? What if credentials were transparent, trusted, verified, and communicated in understandable language that enables smooth transfers among education and work?

Let’s think boldly and climb out of this perfect storm together.

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