June 12, 2017

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So-called “soft skills” have hard-hitting value in the workplace.

Today's guest blog comes from AASA friend Maria Ferguson, executive director at the Center on Education Policy.

If “college and career readiness” was the catchall phrase for the education reform movement circa 2008-2016, “the skills gap” is on deck to take its place for 2017. It seems everyone these days is talking about skills and competencies and their value in the labor market. Although rigorous academic preparation and college readiness remains a constant target for educators, employers are becoming increasing active and vocal about the skills gap and what it means to be career ready.  

Despite widespread agreement among educators and policymakers that students need to be prepared for the demands of both academia and the workplace, there has always been divide between what it means to prepare for college vs. work. 

Often referred to as “soft skills,” workplace skills and competencies often end up on the wrong side of the divide for a range of reasons. Part of the divide is purely practical: How can one system prepare students for college while giving them the experiences they need to develop workplace skills and competencies? In other ways the divide is much more class-based, with low performing students (often poor and at risk) directed towards career and/or technical education and stronger students aiming for college. And finally there is the issue of measurement. There is still no widely accepted, fully validated measurement tool for assessing skills and competencies. 

A new report from the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University (the organization I lead) reminds us why the divide between academic and career readiness is increasingly antiquated. The report, Building Competencies for Careers, finds that most jobs and careers require individuals that have both academic knowledge and one or more common skills and competencies. 

The report drew on information from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Information Network (O*NET) database. O*NET uses surveys data from employees and occupational experts to determine the characteristics of more than 900 occupations, including the important knowledge, skills, abilities and work styles required for each occupational area. The report finds that among the 301 occupations in CEP’s sample of O*NET occupations, all required one or more of six competencies that are essential for students to master as they prepare for both college and career. 

To conduct the study, CEP researchers used the six deeper learning competencies develop by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation:  mastering core academic content; thinking critically and solving complex problems; working collaboratively; communicating effectively; learning how to learn; and developing academic mindsets. CEP “linked” these competencies to similar O*NET categories and analyzed how relevant each of the deeper learning competencies were for a range of jobs and occupations. 

While all of the jobs analyzed by CEP require one or more of the deeper learning competencies, experts found several competencies to be most important. Developing an academic mindset, a competency about which prominent education researchers like Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth have written extensively, was highly prized across all of O*NET’s jobs and occupations. Also important were personal initiative and the ability to communicate and collaborate effectively. 

These competencies were found to be important for what O*NET calls Bright Outlook occupations – those that are expected to grow rapidly, have a large number of openings or are new or emerging. The deeper learning competencies also were more important for occupations requiring higher levels of experience, education and training than for entry-level type jobs. The study suggests that schools that can provide students with the opportunity to learn these kinds of skills and competencies along with subject area content will help better prepare graduates for a wide range of jobs and careers. 

But providing all students with the opportunity to develop these skills and competencies (in addition to learning rigorous academic content) is not so easy to do and requires an array of resources. If education and business leaders are serious about closing the skills gap, schools can’t be solely responsible for fixing the problem. Families, communities and business leader also have to do their part to help ensure students are both college and career ready. 

I predict the conversations about closing the skills gap will not end any time soon. Although the NCLB era is behind us, there is still reluctance among policymakers to value any skill or competency unless it can be adequately measured. While part of that reluctance may be justified, it is also important for education leaders to heed employer feedback about the range of knowledge, skills and experience needed to keep the U.S. economy strong and vibrant. College and career readiness should not be a zero sum game. 

For a copy of the report plus additional resources, please visit CEP at www.cep-dc.org


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