How Competency-Based Programs Can Bridge the Skills Gap

Many of us have heard from colleagues that our country’s postsecondary institutions cannot keep up with projected growth in the middle-skill occupations. In fact, according to some projections, the United States will be facing a shortage of 5 million workers by 2020, and this is due to the fact that “education and workforce development institutions aren’t closely aligned with [the middle skill sector] to meet the growing demand.”  As we are all too aware, one root cause of this misalignment is because there are not enough training programs that understand the real-world requirements and day-to-day duties of our workplaces.

Some of the more innovative postsecondary institutions are determined to realign their curriculum with our employment needs by implementing competency-based education (CBE) programs that provide students with the skills employers need. Proponents of CBE know these programs “create high-quality learning pathways that are affordable, scalable, and tailored to a wide variety of industries.” This is because competency-based models are built on learning outcomes that explicitly reflect the practical application of workplace knowledge and skills. These learning outcomes are measured through direct assessment, a form of assessment that requires students to demonstrate mastery through their work performance.

At a recent webinar, “Credit Where Credit is Due: How Credly is Helping Build a Digital Credentialing Economy,” representatives from Brandman University and the Colorado Community College System (CCCS) described how they developed and implemented successful CBE programs, which include input from local industry, interactive online assessments, and digital credentialing.

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Brandman University launched a CBE curriculum initiative in 2014.  According to Diane Singer, Associate Dean for Competency-Based Curriculum and Assessment, “We launched a CBE program and augmented it with a digital badge program because we felt it was very important to allow our students who have mastered specific competencies to share this information in an evidentiary way with the workforce and potential employers.”

According to Singer, “In our experience with employers, they want students to earn digital badges for competencies that are relevant to job performance, things they would otherwise have to teach in order to make that employee job-ready.”

So how do employers feel about digital badges? In a nationwide survey, which was conducted by Wonderlic’s National Soft Skills Consortium and comprised of more 260 hiring managers and business owners:
  • 83% stated that they preferred digital badges when verifying a candidate’s job skills during the hiring process.
  • 60% said they would be more inclined to interview graduates that had job-specific skills badges on their resumes.
  • 87% agreed that local educators should equip their graduates with job-specific credentials such as digital badges before sending them to job interviews.
Since 2014, CCCS, which serves 13 colleges and 39 locations across Colorado, has worked extensively with employers to identify skills gaps and to develop competency-based programs and digital credentialing to address those gaps.

According to Brenda Perea, Instructional Design Project Manager, they launched the CBE/Digital Badge pilot in response to industry demand for qualified employees in Colorado’s advanced manufacturing sector — the sector was reporting a shortage of 15,000 employees per year. In addition, the state asked CCCS to provide alternative types of credentialing besides the traditional certificate or transcript.

“Our solution: we identified competencies that are learner-focused, community-centered, and industry-driven, and awarded credentials in the form of digital badges,” said Perea.

Even though CCCS students in the advanced manufacturing program were required to graduate with a math credit, the school was getting feedback from industry and businesses that students graduating from the program couldn’t apply the math skills required within the advanced manufacturing environment. “So we created a technical math for industry MOOC [massive open online course] covering the math concepts for advanced manufacturing and created digital badges for each of the granular competencies. There are 23 in all, 6 are mastery and 17 are expert level.”

According to Perea, “Not only were our CCCS students signing up for the free MOOC to enhance their math skills, but that local manufacturers were sending their employees to reskill or upskill their math skills in order to better utilize their workforce.”

Furthermore, within their advanced manufacturing program, CCCS developed the competencies and digital badges for its machining course based on the National Institute of Metal Working Standards. “We backward designed into our advanced manufacturing programs based directly from these standards,” Perea said.

“Based on the results of our program, last March 9 advanced manufacturing companies decided that they were going to use competency-based hiring and no longer use certificate or degree-bearing processes.”

By building learning outcomes on the specific demands of the workforce, CBE programs can provide students with the skills and knowledge relevant to employment. For us, this means saving time and money training new hires by recruiting from schools that offer CBE programs. In short, if competencies are aligned with learning objectives, postsecondary students will most likely be able to demonstrate skills, abilities, and knowledge that meet our needs – which is a solid solution to bridging our country’s middle skills gap.


The GradsofLifeVoice Forbes team provides thought leadership, research and expert commentary on innovative talent pipelines and related issues such as the skills gap, income inequality, workforce diversity, and the business case for employment pathways. We seek to change employers’ perceptions of young adults with atypical resumes from social liabilities to economic assets. This post was originally featured here.


Education, Skills Gap, Workforce Development,
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