In normal times, August is Back-to-School season with articles about homesickness and ads for dorm room supplies. This year, however, the attention is on the serious decisions being made by college students and families about how to navigate a resurging Covid-19.

What may be getting lost in the fog of worry and confusion is the issue of greatest significance, namely, what students will actually learn when they turn on their computers or show up for class this fall—learning that is so important for long-term health and success. How many are thinking about developing a portfolio of skills that will help them enter the workforce and continue to thrive? It is becoming clear that the ability to learn continuously and develop new skills over a lifetime has huge economic benefits for individuals, businesses, industries, and nations. Even if the global recession has abated by the time they graduate, these life-shaping decisions about gaining skills for the first, second and third jobs become even more important in a recession.  And, of course, most college students are already working adults and what they learn may have immediate career implications.

The education technology company Coursera recently released its 2020 Global Skills Index (GSI). Coursera’s competency framework is extraordinarily useful because it maps and evaluates critical competencies and skills in three dimensions: by nation, industry and the most common higher ed fields of study.  Based on data from 65 million global learners on its platform, the report focuses on three competency domains: business, technology, and data science skills. Coursera course offerings are mapped, and learner skills assessed against six competency categories within the three domains. Each of the 18 categories covers a range of more specific skills. For example, sample skills in the Communications category include people skills and writing.

Set of Competencies in the GSI

From Coursera Global Skills Index 2020, p. 61

The Coursera GSI framework of business, technology, and data might seem overly focused on “hard” skills rather than the human or essential skills emphasized in most research about the future of work. This focus likely reflects Coursera’s revenue model of selling its platform and offerings into large businesses and governments interested in developing valuable capabilities broadly among employees and citizens. It also reflects ongoing debate about whether human skills can even be learned online or in higher education setting.  Aside from these limitations, the GSI provides a useful roadmap for both businesses and higher ed institutions. 

Industry Skills

The GSI maps employee skill sets in 10 large industries with some alarming results. For example, healthcare ranks near the bottom of the pack because of low technology and data science skills. The pandemic has quickly pushed along new capabilities such as telemedicine but exposed vulnerabilities in others such as data tracking and sharing. Not surprisingly, students majoring in health are performing poorly on all three of the competency domains. The GSI framework is useful for healthcare providers as they develop plans to upskill their incumbent workers, engage with community partners to diversify their workforce, and build partnerships with local community colleges and four-year institutions. As sophisticated data modeling, artificial intelligence, and security challenges become the state of play in healthcare, these areas are opportunities for both employer reskilling and higher education programs.

These past few months of pandemic disruption have shown that many businesses must develop new skills in areas ranging from change management to online services to process automation. Companies that have invested in employee development have proven more resilient and suffered less financial harm in the recession. Despite the recession, large companies are making huge investments in reskilling programs to develop employee skills more quickly.

Higher Education Competencies

The GSI maps the three domains and competency categories to higher ed fields of study. Not surprisingly given Coursera’s emphasis on business, technology, and data science skills, the physical sciences, computer sciences, engineering, math & statistics ranked at the top. Near the bottom, along with health professions, were education, biological sciences, and social sciences.

There are many opportunities even in the lower-ranked fields to incorporate the valuable skills mapped by the GSI. A competency-based analysis of curriculum could lay out a plan for incorporating the next level of skills in the data, technology, and business domains. Institutions that really wanted to go for broke could add projects and assessments that integrate these skills across courses and programs and would better replicate the kind of work that businesses value.

Learners Have Choices

In the current fraught environment, focused on which institutions will open physically, post-secondary learners of all types should realize that they have many affordable options for future-proofing their education and training. For example:

  • Most adult learners are looking for short programs and skills training, rather than degrees. Employed learners should explore company training programs–most such programs are underutilized.
  • Community colleges often have a clearer focus on the relationship of skills to jobs than do four-year schools. They may be the best match for working adults who need new skills quickly to get back into the workforce as well as for younger, post-high school students who need jobs but may also want to transfer into bachelor degree programs at some point.
  • Many large businesses such as Walmart, McDonald’s, and Starbucks are making major investments in education and training for employees, including tuition assistance programs for college degrees.
  • Using labor market data and industry advisors, online institutions such as Western Governors University are more likely to align their degree programs with workforce skills and competencies than more traditional universities. Coursera, EdX and other online providers offer free or low-cost certificates and degrees.

Moving Forward with Competency Frameworks

The Coursera GSI framework offers a compelling way to analyze curriculum for both corporate learning and higher ed across industries and fields of study. Other solid frameworks from employers, industry associations, and labor market researchers can be applied and customized for corporate learning and higher ed to serve as a roadmap for learning design strategy.  And wouldn’t it be great if there was a seamless hand-off between the two? Credential Engine registers many frameworks and provides a common language between them.

Businesses can use the frameworks to evaluate learning and development programs, assess gaps, and future-proof employee skill sets by developing offerings based on needed competencies.

Higher Ed institutions can use them to rethink programs in fields that have traditionally not incorporated much in the way of technology or data skills. They can customize the frameworks to pilot competency-based learning models, which are needed now more than ever.

This year’s the Back to School campaign is really about how to help the U.S. get back to work by helping learners develop the skills needed for a more competitive future.