Aligning Employability and 21st-Century Skills

We must define employability, and understand that being employable does not equal being employed. The two terms are often used interchangeably and are confused with one another. But they are different, and that difference is related to the very purpose of teaching 21st-century skills in the first place.

So far in this series Untangling the Modern Credential Marketplace, we’ve talked about the language of employability and understanding what we mean when we say things like capability, skills, and competencies. We also talked about 21st-century skills: what they are and how we can best teach them to learners at all levels. Perhaps the most important aspect of all of these things is employability. How are employability and 21st-century skills aligned?

What is Employability?

Employability is the capability to be employed in a given industry, defined by the possession of capability, skills, and competencies desired by employers in that industry. The difference between employability and being employed is often one of choice. A learner may leave school and take a “gap year” to travel before starting their career, or may stay home to care for elderly parents, or take another job in another field for any number of reasons.

The difference is critical when measuring learning outcomes. A person possessing the needed 21st-century skills can be employable and yet not employed for a variety of reasons. But how do we measure employability?

One solution is micro-credentialing. A learner who can demonstrate they possess the skills necessary to satisfy the needs of an employer in their industry, whether actively employed or not, can be identified as employable.

Skills Equal Employability

The reasoning behind this is simple: skills, not a job, equal employability. When discussing learner outcomes, we need to shift our understanding of these terms. As we have covered in other posts, capabilities breed skills, and skills when practiced equal competencies. As we move to skills-based hiring models and the use of Rich Skills Descriptions with definable terms, this becomes more critical.

For an employee, it becomes less about what they have done in the past, but what they are capable of doing. This is the very premise of IBM’s My Inner Genius program. A four-year degree or job experience notwithstanding, the real question should instead be, “Are you capable of doing this job because of the skills you possess. Micro-credentials give an employee the ability to both answer “yes” and prove their answer.

For the employer, the same question should be asked: “is the candidate the best fit for this job based on what they can do, not what they have done or a degree they hold?” A micro-credentialing framework enables them to clearly assess those skills, and determine the one thing that matters more than any other in this changing job market: “Are those skills transferable to a variety of positions?”

Employability and the Transfer of Skills

Studies show that the years of long term employment in a single position with a single company are a thing of the past. Employees change companies or positions at an average of one every 4.6 years, and the length of those tenures appears to be decreasing rather than increasing. A shrewd employer looks not just at an employee’s current competencies, but also the skills that support those competencies.

This results in two important things: first, career tracks can be created within a certain discipline, ones that do not require the learner to “go into management” or some other track they may not be suited for. Instead, opportunities related to their skills can be created within the company, and internal and external learning can be supported to make those positions attainable. As Richard Branson says, “Train your employees so they can leave and work anywhere. Treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”

Secondly, focusing on transferable skills means that even if a particular job or discipline is automated or otherwise becomes outdated, the employee can transfer those skills to a new position more easily. Rather than competency specialisation, skill specialisation makes a transfer to a new position or discipline, supported by competency training, much easier. Essentially, employees can transfer careers within a single company.

However, employers also need to get comfortable with the fact that they will not have a career track for everyone. If an employee finds a better application for their skills elsewhere, and you have no alternative career path for them in your organisation, that is okay. You want to train your employees to be their best selves career-wise, even if that means that their career continues independent of your company.

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Frameworks in the Financial Sector

A prime example of this is the Financial Sector in Singapore. The Skills Future Initiative is a joint project “jointly developed by SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG), Workforce Singapore (WSG), Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), and the Institute of Banking and Finance (IBF), together with industry associations, training providers, organisations and unions, the Skills Framework for Financial Services promotes skills mastery and lifelong learning, and is an integral component of the Financial Services Industry Transformation Plan.”

Essentially the program has identified six “tracks” which include 158 different job roles, areas in the financial sector some learners and employees may not have considered before, or may not even know existed. They’ve identified Skills and Competencies for each of the job roles that fall under two broad classifications: Technical Skills and Competencies, and Critical Core Skills (previously known as Generic Skills and Competencies).

This aligns precisely with the models discussed above. Hiring for any given position is skills-based, with the understanding that competencies can be taught. Training is offered for those new to the financial industry or those who wish to change positions or careers, and learners earn “badges” or “certifications” that prove their ability to perform a given job. This training combines both technical skills (hard skills) and core skills (soft skills).

This is a prime example of how skills frameworks can practically be applied to an industry, offering both employees and employers a clearer picture of skills and competencies, defining how transferrable those skills are, and offering a clear, skills-based career path.

Why is this not more common?

Funding and the Changing Job Market

One of the biggest obstacles to creating similar frameworks in other industries is quite simply funding. For example, former President Donald Trump in the US signed an executive order implementing skills-based hiring for all Federal positions. The implementation of such a sweeping change across a Federal hiring process will take time and funding.

That is at a government level. At industry levels, initiatives like the one in Singapore are a great example, where costs and development are shared by industry, government, and other vested parties. On a company and education level, some institutions are attempting to make changes as well, equipping learners before they even leave university or other training programs.

However, funding is another issue. If framework changes violate current curriculum standards, which they often do, the institution risks losing Federal, state, or other funding, something they simply cannot afford. Meanwhile, the job market continues to change, and the need for better learning solutions that are skills-based rather than testing outcome-based, and those focused on employability rather than employment becomes greater.

The solutions, while they may seem obvious and simple from a high level are much more complicated upon closer inspection. But the time to make changes is now.

What do you think? How closely are skills and employability tied together? What steps need to be taken to implement new frameworks in your industry?

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Credentialate is the world’s first Credential Evidence Platform. It helps you discover and share evidence of workplace skills. Credentialate is the only Credential Evidence Platform that includes personalised qualitative, quantitative and artefact evidence record verified directly from within the digital badge. For institutions, educators can map and manage their skills infrastructure and track skills attainment across the institution and against existing frameworks.

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Untangling the Modern Credential Marketplace

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In this blog series, we seek to untangle the modern credential marketplace by examining it from multiple perspectives, including:

  • The changing nature and increasing focus on skills in employment settings
  • How required skills are identified for newly-created roles
  • How skills are aligned to employment opportunities in the new global economy
  • How education providers may meet the education needs of the future
  • How learners can distinguish themselves through modern digital credentials

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