We are no longer preparing for the future of work in this country: the future of work is here. The pandemic and ensuing devastating job loss have accelerated an already rising need for a flexible workforce—one where all workers have the opportunity to reskill in preparation for future employment and employers can upskill their workforce quickly, efficiently and equitably. The growing interest in skills-based hiring advances the notion of “skills-based mobility” for America’s workforce. How do we make this happen? A crucial first step is to create a common language among employers, educators and learners. Competencies are that common language.

What are competencies?

The growing interest in competency-based education (CBE) has given rise to multiple and occasionally confusing uses of the word “competency.”  We use the term to describe what a person can do with what they know

Competencies offer a bridge between academia (where “knowing” is usually prioritized and learning is typically abstract and siloed by discipline) and the workplace (where “doing” is usually prioritized and learning is typically contextualized, integrated and purpose-driven).   

But a competency on its own is not enough. In our experience working with both employers and education providers, we have found that an essential component of a competency-based approach is the development and use of a competency framework.  More than a list of relevant competencies, the framework delineates a coherent set of interrelated competencies. It can therefore serve as the blueprint for an educational or training program as well as for performance-based assessment. It is also a crucial mechanism that enables educational institutions and employers to communicate about the essential skills and knowledge necessary for a specific occupation or cluster of occupations.

How Competencies May Be Used in Practice 

When employers and academic institutions work together to define competencies, the benefits are enormous. Colleges and universities can build programs that signal to local employers that graduates possess the skills necessary to deliver on the job. Students who complete these programs will likely receive a “first-look” from employers when applying for internships or full-time positions. Employers can use the frameworks to rethink their job descriptions, so that those descriptions more accurately convey what is needed in a successful job candidate. This enables employers to evaluate job seekers more appropriately and to chart natural advancement pathways in their organizations.  For students, competency frameworks can make job-relevant skills and abilities explicit and transparent, enabling students to describe to prospective employers what they can do with what they have learned.  

Competencies can also serve as the basis for preparing a flexible workforce by determining the gap between the skills a student or worker possesses today, and those they will need to prepare them for their next role. Training can then be created to address that gap, allowing the worker to quickly attain needed skills and take on new responsibilities. 

The pandemic has only accelerated the need for an adaptable workforce and the ability of educators as well as training providers to prepare, reskill and upskill individuals to meet rapidly changing industry demands.  This will not happen without a common competency-based language and frame of reference for educators and employers.  Our economic future depends on it.