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Flying the Skills Plane with Duct Tape and Chewing Gum: The Design Challenges – Part One

The skills ecosystem is a way of thinking that implies skills build off one another to make the person at the center a better, more appealing potential member of the workforce.
The skills ecosystem is a way of thinking that implies skills build off one another to make the person at the center a better, more appealing potential member of the workforce.

Holly Zanville recently interviewed Naomi Boyer about higher education’s digital transformation challenges. Part one in the three-part series focuses on defining key terms in the skills ecosystem and why it is important to do so. The following is drawn from a transcript of their conversation. 

Holly Zanville (HZ): It’s getting harder to understand the terms in the learn-and-work marketplace around skills—like the skills ecosystem, the difference between competencies and skills and skills-based hiring. Why is that?

Naomi Boyer (NB): It is getting more confusing.We use several terms to describe the ecosystem, and even that term is confusing because in reality, there are many ecosystems. Yet we call it the learn-and-work ecosystem as if it’s a single system. We have not used a theoretical framework of what an ecosystem is to inform our concept of it. In many ways, we have a self-organizing ecosystem. We all put on our own lens and value statements to terms, without defining them in a way we can all understand. Add to that our beliefs about what needs to happen in this space. All of this can add confusion to discussions. Oftentimes, definitions emerge from working sessions when we need to come up with plain speak that anyone can understand. We need to reach a consensus on the definition and build upon it. We’re not negating the various nuances of terms. And we’re not arguing that this is the only definition. We’re just saying that when we use a word, this is what we mean. This is the approach we tend to take at Ed Design Lab. 

HZ: That does make for an imprecise communication world for many. What about skills then as a commonly used term?

NB: Skills has come to stand for what someone knows and what someone does. We tend to think that skills are merely behavioral and demonstrable, though it is still the norm to use the word skills to mean competencies. Competencies include the broader definition of knowledge, skills, abilities, dispositions, etc. With the increasing use of the term skills, there’s increasing confusion over the difference between skills and competencies. 

HZ: Should we care if skills and competencies are coming to mean the same thing?

NB: Yes and no. There are significant differences between the terms for some contexts. The differences, for example, are important to higher education institutions, less so for employers. When we’re referring to an open skills network, matching of skills, or skills-based hiring, we are generally using the word skills to mean competencies. But when we’re referring to academic programs established with learning outcomes that are competency statements, it is important to use the term competencies. Skills badges, for example, can be joined with various credentials, but the higher education community understands competencies to be different from skills. This adds additional confusion when communicating about skills across organizations. 

HZ:  What does the skills ecosystem meanthen

NB: The term skills ecosystem was popularized with the advent of skills-based hiring. Employers are trying to match their existing employee talent to new job positions and fill them with new employees. But that is not proving to be easy. I’m not convinced that the education and employer silos are bridged sufficiently to enable both to solve these issues on their side. Some industries started using skill-based hiring years ago. The construction industry, for example, uses licensure and certification to denote skills. But many employers do not have comprehensive applicant tracking systems configured to elevate skills. The lack of applicants and people in certain job areas has encouraged employers to lower some of these barriers and figure out how to get the right people into their jobs with the skills they have. These developments can open doors for more diverse individuals to access jobs—level the playing field for those seeking meaningful work and a better quality of life. 

HZ: Why are employers having a hard time hiring for skills?

NB:  In the past, many employers used the college degree as a proxy for the ability to do the job—for perceived skills that have been achieved. But we’ve all learned that using the degree is not a very precise way of hiring. First, not all college degrees prepare individuals with the skills an employer needs. It is often difficult to know what a degree stands for—we have not had much transparency in the degree as a credential. Also, if you’re only hiring people with degrees, you’re limited to a certain population. Because so many populations are underrepresented in the degreed population—like Black, Latino, Native American, and low-income folks—you’ve shut out the possibility of attracting diversity to your workforce. Finally, anyone can attest to the skills they think they have, and the resume or job application is not a trusted source of information.

HZ:  Is this why the terminology of a skills ecosystem is so closely associated with an equitable, diverse workforce? 

NB: Yes, the term has come to mean a more diverse workforce because employers would be hiring for skill, what someone knows and can do, and not necessarily college degrees. Limiting access to jobs based upon academic pedigrees—and we can add to that the social networks individuals typically acquire while they are pursuing a college degree—minimizes diversity in high-demand talent pools and meaningful job roles. 

HZ:  Since we’re talking about key terms that have emerged in our dictionaries around the learn-and-work ecosystem, are there other terms for our dictionary? 

NB:  I would add talent mobility, too. Talent mobility was identified as a strategic imperative in CLO webinar set up by ed tech company Degreed and hosted by the organization’s Vice President of Strategic Partnerships, David Taylor. The need to adapt, evolve and enhance opportunities for companies to respond to not only hiring but upskilling and reskilling their workforce requires significant foundational change, which is supported by a skills-based approach. 

HZ:  Are we talking about these concepts and definitions as being primarily important for employers and employer hiring?

NB: Yes, and for the learn-and-work ecosystem that means that many entities have vested interests in developing and hiring talent. Employers and higher education institutions are the most visible because they must navigate identifying, prioritizing, validating and communicating skills to foster a robust career and continuous learning trajectory for the nation’s population. Currently, 75% of job listings require a bachelor’s degree. To enhance and diversify the talent pools where skills gaps exist, while providing more access to jobs, new models that establish a candidate’s quality and value verified, validated skills must be embraced. Equity among individuals in the job market lies at the heart of the movement to unveil the skills integrated into academic programs, achieved by learner-earners and necessary for job roles. Visibility of skills is key to matching the potential workforce with employers seeking talent. It is a learning imperative for workplace equity and economic vitality that educational providers empower individuals to maximize their achievements and convey skills to professionally advance. 

HZ: Are there other key issues or entities key to digital transformation?

NB: There is the data issue. Identifying and incorporating skills in both education and the workforce is important, but removing barriers to hiring based on skills must also be attended to. Organizations have segmented and isolated their data. Though this practice rightfully addresses security, protection and privacy concerns, we must empower individuals with their skill achievements to share where, when and how they wish. That requires establishing controlled but permeable boundaries for data interoperability. Application, recruiting and hiring systems will need to be configured and standardized with open data standards to unveil the hidden workers that represent the missed diverse talent pools that could be leveraged to fill areas of reported skills gaps. It is also critical that individuals get access to their own skills data rather than the data being held captive by the education or employing organization.

HZ: We’ve identified several important concepts—definitions—necessary to understanding some of the key components of the skills plane so many are trying to fly—the skills ecosystem, skills-based hiring, social capital, talent mobility and data interoperability (open data standards). In Part 2, let’s focus on implementation challenges. In Part 3, we can focus on the benefits to the plane flying well, the so-what. 

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